The latest crisis for rural fire departments
by Annie Stoltie
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.”