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How to Keep Volunteer Firefighting at Optimum Levels

Having a junior firefighter program isn't unique to Adams Fire Department; the town of Watertown also has its own, which has seen individuals such as Josh B. Wilcox graduate from the junior program and become a firefighter in the department.

closeup of firefighter wearing gloves
(TNS) - Even as call volumes remain the same as they were at the town of Watertown fire station, the number of volunteer firefighters has drastically fallen.

Just five years ago, in 2017, the department had 68 total firefighters. Fast forward to today, and those numbers have dropped by close to 50%.

For the previous six years, the average number of calls that the town of Watertown Fire Department responded to each month has remained about the same, with the lowest number of calls coming in 2020 with about 48 calls per month and the highest coming in 2017 with about 56 calls per month.

In Adams, its department's numbers have stayed pretty consistent, with around 60 members in the department, according to Robert D. Simpson, information officer with the Adams Fire Department. He said about half of those people are interior firefighters qualified to go into a burning building.

Mr. Simpson said a big part of the department's recruitment is its junior firefighter program, which he says began in the late 1970s or early 1980s and has resulted in 21 current members of the department.

Having a junior firefighter program isn't unique to Adams Fire Department; the town of Watertown also has its own, which has seen individuals such as Josh B. Wilcox graduate from the junior program and become a firefighter in the department. Both of his parents have been members of the Watertown department and his grandfather served as the assistant chief.

"This is like a second home for me as a kid," Mr. Wilcox said. "This was the place where I would rather spend my time as a kid than being at home ... My wife would agree that's probably still true today."

According to the United States Fire Administration, only four U.S. states have a higher percentage of volunteer fire departments than New York state. In New York state, 90.2% of all fire departments are volunteer, with only West Virginia (90.6%), South Dakota (91.8%), Nebraska (92.1%), and North Dakota (92.3%) having a higher percentage. In Jefferson County, there are a total of 43 fire departments, including Fort Drum's Fire Department. Of those 43 departments, 41, or around 95%, are either fully staffed by volunteers or mostly staffed by volunteers.

"We're all adrenaline junkies," said town of Watertown fire district manager Fred J. Sourwine. "I think for me, and I don't want to sound self-serving here, but I wanted the community to be able to look at me and say, 'Hey that's a guy that I can go to and he'll help in the worst time of my life.' ... You go to a fire call, you're going to potentially that person's worst point in their life; they're literally standing in front of their house, watching their stuff burn, and if you can be that person that takes a little bit of that burden or pain away, that's a big thing."

Town of Watertown firefighter Debra L. Reid said she wanted to become a firefighter after watching the television show "Emergency! Squad 51" as a child. However, after an injury to her left eye left her unable to fight fires, she decided to go another route to help people: becoming a dispatcher. Other factors also led to her thinking that she couldn't join a department.

"But then when I found out what it was all about ... I'm like this is nice to be able to help the community in a different way," she said.

According to the Firefighters Association of the State of New York, student-volunteers are eligible to have up to 100% of their tuition reimbursed, but not exceeding $1,500. In order to be eligible, a person must be an active volunteer firefighter and in good standing, and they must re-apply every semester. They also say that only 100 applicants will be selected and if more than 100 people apply, the finalists will be chosen at random.

Zachary A. Cullen, first assistant chief with Redwood Fire Department, said that he wanted to join the department to give back to the community, something he has done since early 2004 when he originally joined the volunteer service.

He said one of the reasons he loves being a part of the department so much is because of the friendships and relationships he has built.

"You build a lot of friendships and relationships through the fire service and that was one of the big things that kept me in the volunteer service," he said.

Chief Cullen said when he first started with the fire service, people needed 48 hours of training. He says that in order to be a well-rounded firefighter, someone may need hundreds of hours of training.

"It is so hard to ask somebody to do that, that is working a 40-plus-hour week, has got a family, a home," he said.

He said, however, that they haven't seen a steep decrease in volunteers at Redwood and they have remained around 30 to 35 members between administrative members as well as active firefighters.

He said 10 years ago there may have been 35 to 40 members, but that numbers have stayed "pretty steady."

However, as for people that answer the alarm, Chief Cullen said that number is steadily decreasing.

Depending on the scene, the chief said they may have just a couple people or up to 15 to 20 people.

Chief Cullen said joining a department is a simple process that includes a state-mandated background check, physical and signing up for a class. He said the classes can take some time due to New York state being short on instructors, as well as classes filling up fast.

Firefighter's mental health is something that is on the mind of many within departments as well, with town of Watertown Chief David E. Johnston calling it "a huge thing in the fire service."

In Jefferson County, there are two fire chaplains, Pastor Leon I. VanWie and Rev. Samuel P. Lundy.

Pastor VanWie said that Jefferson County is currently "working on" the critical response team.

"It's defunct right now," he said.

Chief Johnston said that if a Jefferson Community College student has any fire background they are eligible to live at their Coffeen Street station with no charges for room and board. He said up to eight students can be housed at the station.

The department also offers a live-in program where a volunteer firefighter can live at the station, firefighter Ms. Reid said.

Croghan Fire Chief Steve Monnat said he has been with the department since 1976 and joined because it was in his family.

The fire chief called it is his hobby and said that it is something he enjoys doing.

In his department, he says that they don't have as many volunteers as they have had in years prior.

"I learned a long time ago it's not all about quantity of your roster, it's quality," he said.

Chief Monnat said they are lucky because of the nearby departments, but he said it makes him wonder what the future may hold.

Currently they have a roster of 55 people, and he described at least 35 of them as being "active."

He said that they have about 10 fewer firefighters than they did 10 years ago, but said that they have the same number of members responding to big calls as they did 10 years ago.

"It's not what it used to be, but you can't dwell on what it used to be," he said.

For firefighters in Lewis County, critical incident stress debriefing exists to help those in need of mental health services.

Chief Monnat said that departments' individual training may be turning people off to volunteering. He said that there are some departments in Lewis County that require "100 hour classes to join." He said departments are following New York state's recommendations a little too much.

"You can join the Croghan Fire Department in 30 hours or less, depending on what you're going to be doing. You don't have to have 100 hours of training to hand out gear at a fire scene or run a truck," he said.

Those interested in volunteering with their local fire department, can give their local department a call or contact Jefferson County Emergency Services.

"Anybody can volunteer," Ms. Reid said.

©2022 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.