Volunteer fire companies struggle to recruit, and it's not just COVID to blame

Apr 21, 2021

This weekend, April 24 and 25, volunteer fire companies throughout New York State will host events with the hope they'll attract new recruits. It's not been easy finding and keeping volunteer firefighters. While COVID has changed the way they've conducted operations and training, the pandemic isn't the only reason why recruiting has been challenging.

Each year, the Firemen's Association of the State of New York (FASNY) coordinates a recruitment weekend, in which hundreds of halls schedule their own open houses or other outreach programs. (Click here for a full list of events scheduled this weekend.)

Snyder Volunteer Fire Captain Zach Polvino
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

The Snyder Fire Hall, which hosts its event Saturday morning beginning at 10 a.m., hopes to draw some interested individuals. Captain Zach Polvino noted programs made available through Erie 1 BOCES and Daemen College that give young men and women a first taste of life as a first responder. And it's hoped some could find their way to Snyder Fire Company's headquarters.

“Sometimes young kids, young adults don't know that there's an opportunity out there,” he said. “We have to do a better job as a fire department of telling that story and saying, hey, look, we're out here. You can volunteer with us and go through those programs in college or high school.”

FASNY does not have a centralized source which keeps data on numbers of recruits. But based on the information it does have available, there were about 120,000 volunteer firefighters within New York State about 20 years ago. Now, they estimate, there are anywhere between 80,000 and 85,000 among the ranks.

The organization's Secretary, John S. D’Alessandro, explained that while recruiting has been tough, so too has been retention.

"As they get older, they age out. They go from being an active member to a social member, where they go from being an interior firefighter to, say, just a driver," he said. "So there's two processes going on, less people joining and more people leaving."

Even state government is concerned. Last fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the formation of a one-year task force to study the trend and explore how to encourage more participation.

In the State Senate bill, COVID is blamed in great part for volunteer fire company challenges. Polvino says struggles to find new talent predate the pandemic, although the disease has forced fire companies to change the way they conduct their training and operations. It also includes community outreach.

“Some of these events that you do on a regular, a yearly basis, you're not doing anymore, or they're postponed because of COVID,” Polvino said. “It does take a little bit of a toll, I think. And it's, you know, part of the larger issues I think that we're all facing, right? Kind of that COVID fatigue.”

Among the other reasons why they're having trouble, he suggests, is "being a victim of their own success" in an affluent community such as Snyder. While they operate like a professional company, they're not paid pros. But many in the public don't understand that.

"Our rigs are are well taken care of. Our members are given the top-line turnout gear and equipment. We pay for top-end training and we train pretty regularly and pretty hard. Sometimes we've heard from the public, 'we didn't know that you're volunteer, we thought you were a paid service,'” Polvino said.

D'Alessandro concurs, telling WBFO the misconception that volunteer companies are paid positions is a problem throughout the state. And then there's the challenge of finding people willing to dedicate their time, and those who have the stomach for what some of the job entails. He told WBFO about a focus group study they conducted several years ago.

"There were three main things that came out of the focus groups. The first and biggest reason was, 'I don't have the time - life is so complicated these days, at work, a job and a half or two jobs, we're running the kids all around from baseball, and soccer and whatever. So I just, I don't have the time to give to it,'" D'Alessandro explained. "The second thing was that 'I don't have it in me, I'm not the one running towards danger. I'm the one going the other way.' And then the third thing was  'even if I wanted to do it, I don't have a clue how to be a firefighter.'"

FASNY then launched a campaign to inspire candidates, using the tagline "Is there a fire in you?"

Polvino acknowledged the pandemic's influence inspiring many students to pursue public health as a career path. He suggests it's too soon to determine whether the COVID crisis and its impact on society may inspire some to get into firefighting. But his company, and others throughout the state, are hoping some who visit their halls this weekend will want to come back as trainees, and later participants in the critical community service.