Volunteer numbers down

Lake Placid fire Chief Douglas T. Hoffman has been on the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department for about 20 years – for most of the years since he was 18 – and the number of volunteers in his department are at the lowest point since he started.

“Since I’ve been in the fire department, our actual membership numbers are down considerably,” he told the Enterprise in a Friday phone interview.

Fire departments and rescue squads throughout the area are having increasing problems getting enough volunteers, and some may have to shift to paid squads in order to have enough responders.

Schroon town Supervisor Mike Marnell brought the topic up at an Essex County Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday. He said all the squads in the county are having problems with it and asked if there are any incentives to help encourage more people to volunteer.

Randy Preston, committee chair and Wilmington town supervisor, said there’s a $200 exemption for firefighters and rescue squad volunteers on state income taxes. He said few current volunteers take advantage of the exemption.

Preston said the biggest problem is that the state keeps increasing regulations on firefighters and ambulance squads, which makes it so the ordinary volunteer can’t keep up.

Marnell said his town is looking at shifting to a paid EMS squad and possibly fire in even the next two years.

“Oh it’s coming,” Preston said. “It’s coming for everybody.”

Patty Bashaw, the county’s EMS coordinator, told supervisors she’s working on a plan for Crown Point, but she encouraged each town supervisor to think outside the box to get their squads staffed.

Bashaw said another part of the problem is that there are more calls because the area’s aging population is increasing and having more health problems, and they’re being released from hospitals sooner than they used to be.

Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas said his rescue squad changed to a paid service last year, and the squad is asking the town for a $43,000 increase in its budget to offset the costs.

“If I accept that, we’re already over the tax cap before I do anything with my own budget,” Douglas said. “We’re going to come in under the tax cap one way or another, but it’s a juggling act.”

Franklin County has had the same problem. Emergency Services Coordinator Ricky Provost told the Enterprise in a phone interview that while some departments need them more than others, pretty much every fire and rescue squad in the county could take more members.

“We can never have enough volunteers,” Provost said.

Basic training for a firefighter is 90 hours, and emergency medical technicians need 200 hours of training, he said.

“It’s such a time commitment for people,” he said. “People struggle to find that much time. That’s six months, two nights a week.”

That’s for initial training. Then, for EMTs, they have to renew their training every three years. Julie Harjung, chief of the Saranac Lake rescue squad, said her squad has trouble keeping people on the roll active due to that.

Nationally, the average amount of time for people to stay on a rescue squad is three years, Harjung said. She said the Saranac Lake squad has some people who have been there for a long time, but plenty of people coming and going as well.

“People are busy and they don’t have the time, resources and the community spirit to follow through with it,” Harjung said. “A lot of folks want to be part of the fire and rescue, and then they realize how much it entails then they fade away.”

The availability of classes is difficult, too. Volunteers usually have to drive to places like Lewis or Malone, which can add an extra hour or an hour-and-a-half to an already long class, Harjung said.

Her department pays some EMTs during the day, because there weren’t enough volunteers to respond. But that gets tough, too, she said, because volunteers are harder to motivate when someone doing the same thing is getting paid.

In Lake Placid, Hoffman said the number of firefighters turning out to calls are getting lower, because of membership numbers and also employers seem less willing to let firefighters out of work to respond.

He said the department often has to rely on mutual aid from neighboring departments, and the number of mutual aid requests his department responds to are up as well.

He doesn’t remember ever having to recruit firefighters, but the department is starting to talk about ways to recruit young people. He said in the past, serving the community was a big deal to people, but younger generations aren’t as interested in it.

“I think it’s definitely a problem, not just for us, but for the whole area,” Hoffman said. “I think it will continue to be a problem, and I think the communities need to realize that if we don’t get volunteers, we’ve got to look at some other way of doing it.”

Despite the difficulties, Provost said there are lot of good things about volunteering. He said that everyone would want someone to help if they had a family member in need, so people should pitch in and help out.

“Everybody can help, and that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.