December 2011

Slow Burn

The latest crisis for rural fire departments

When the Victorian mansion in my neighborhood was swallowed by fire, it crushed the dreams of countless folks who fantasized about living in the landmark above Jay’s rapids.The suspiciousness of the blaze also crushed my sense of security. But it shoved the 65 or so firefighters who appeared after the first plume of smoke onto my radar. That day, brigades from Jay, Upper Jay, Au Sable Forks and Wilmington converged to fight a 1,700-plus-degree fireball that engulfed the balloon-frame house. Some of them were back during Irene, rescuing a nearby family as the Ausable River pushed through the house. These heroes risked their lives in the rising, thigh-high water that propelled propane tanks, trees and other debris with it.

In a tiny town there are things you expect: that your postmaster knows your name and, if your house catches fire or you’re in trouble, that the local fire department and EMTs will save your tail. In Adi­rondack hamlets firefighters aren’t paid; when their pagers buzz, these volunteers drop everything and race to the scene from all points in a district. They can arrive faster than law enforcement stationed at far-flung outposts. They know the country roads, wild forests, tricky waterways, the homes and quirks of locals—tribal knowledge from, for many, generations of close-knit-community living.

This civic foundation of our rural places is fading. Across the park, fire department membership is dwindling: Star Lake, which used to have a waiting list, has 25 active members, a number that shrinks annually. Inlet, whose population swells from 350 to 10,000 in summer, has just 20 active members. Jay has 22, five fewer than last year. Blue Mountain Lake has a dozen or more. And the average age of members in most departments soars into the golden years.

“What hurts us is the training,” explains Jay’s fire chief Glen Wil­liams. He says the state-re­quired 120-hour introductory fire­fighters’ course, recently quadrupled and to be completed in six months, is a turnoff for re­cruits struggling with the de­mands of family and, in an unstable economy, often working multiple jobs. There are more classes too, like operating a pump, driving an engine and ex­tricating victims from vehicles. And OSHA has additional coursework. It makes Wil­liams question the meaning of “volunteer”: “That’s what we’re called, but you still need to follow county, state and federal mandates.”

“I am a firm believer in training, but it’s killing the fire service,” says Wilmington town supervisor Ran­dy Preston, a 34-year veteran of his town’s fire department. The state has “gone way, way overboard with regulations—it’s almost impossible for volunteers to do it anymore.”

Preston says when wannabe members learn of the coursework at his 32-member department, they walk away. “Unless there’s drastic changes from the state, it’s not going to be pretty,” he warns. “When the fire service goes to paid, it’ll be horrifying for taxpayers.”

According to the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, “if all fire protective services now provided by volunteers were funded by taxpayers, it would add approximately $2.8 billion in pay and benefits, firefighter equipment, and general operations costs per year.” The organization hopes to lure fire­fighters with a college tuition reimbursement program funded through a grant from Homeland Security. Participants must get good grades, fulfill re­quirements at a volunteer firehouse and attend a community college within 50 miles of their residence. The latter provision doesn’t work for Adi­rondackers in remote pockets of the park, points out Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward. But she ad­mits, “We have to do something significant to keep them.” Sayward in­troduced a bill to the Assembly that, with stipulations, covers volunteer fire­fighters’ kids’ tuition at a state college or university. The proposal languishes, she says, be­cause it costs money.

“Incentives are good,” says Preston, “but if you don’t fix the system, it doesn’t matter what you offer.”

One solution, suggests Jay fire department president Dennis Perpetua, is re­structuring the training. At 34, with five years under the helmet, he’s one of the younger new members. He says the current, daunting 120-hour course covers far more than how to enter a burning building safely. Instead, the basics could be taught as a shorter unit, with additional classes on pumps, ladders, engines and more as squad members build on-the-scene skills. “It’ll continue to motivate new members to take their training further,” explains Perpetua, “which will give them more re­sponsibility.” He adds, “Volunteer or paid, we consider ourselves professionals. We do this be­cause we care, for patriotism and pride, so we take it very seriously.”

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