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Fire department recruiting: 'Terrible situation'

TRI-COUNTY AREA—The fire department is one of a community’s most important services, but most departments are having problems recruiting new members.
One recurring problem for area departments is getting younger members to join. In addition, several others are experiencing a decrease in membership.
Watkins Glen Fire Chief Dom Smith called the current membership problem a “terrible situation.” He said there are currently 35 active members, while there used to be close to 60, five years ago. Smith added the average age of members is 40 years old.
He explained the department is trying to encourage more members to join. Smith said they are working on getting a grant for a retirement fund.
“It’s not a lot of money,” he said. However, Smith added the $700 a year could be someone’s extra or only retirement fund. He said it is also a way to give back to the community. Smith explained, as an incentive, it has already tripled the number of people who respond to fire calls.
Another way the Watkins Glen Fire Department is trying to encourage more people to join is through children. Smith said the Junior Program allows teenagers to experience the profession more. He added the Cub Scouts use the fire hall for meetings, allowing them to see what goes on inside.
Penn Yan Chief Rick Retorick said membership is down. There are currently 67 active members, and there were around 80 five years ago.
“We’re struggling to get younger members,” he said.
Retorick explained the department used to do a Junior Program, which allowed teenagers to be a part of the department and encourage them to become members when they were old enough. He said this worked to bring in members before, as he and many of the current members took part in the Junior Program when they were younger.
However, Retorick explained in later years membership in the program got slack and the laws kept changing. He added a lawyer advised the program shouldn’t allow anyone younger than 16 to participate now. And even then, Retorick said what they can do is very limited.
He said getting teenagers involved in the department would be helpful, because with the proper state training, a 17-year-old could be a firefighter. Retorick said that would be good, because they would have more free time. He explained that for an older member, a full time job and family, makes it hard to devote enough time to the department.
“We don’t get a lot of younger members in, or they don’t stay long term,” said Dundee’s Chief Dan Peterson, adding the average age range of members is between 30 and 40.
He said there are currently 38 active fire department members. Five years ago, he said there were at least 50. However, Peterson added there are four new applications in, and two more in the works.
He explained that the department asks anyone who seems interested in joining to do so. Peterson said in the past the department also advertised and put a sign outside of the fire hall to recruit new members.
In Dundee, some firefighters also serve as ambulance volunteers.
“We’re mainly hurting on the ambulance side,” said Peterson about membership in the department.
He explained that there are currently 16 volunteers on the ambulance side. In 2005, there were 30 medics, or a 47 percent decrease in volunteers. Ray Miller, deputy chief, added with the decrease in members, the ambulance squad still makes longer runs, covers more mileage, and makes more trips to Geneva (to the hospital). He added, the overall call volume is also up.

“We’re hurting,” said Montour Falls Chief Tom Carson about membership.
He explained that while membership has stayed steady over the last few years, the department is getting very few new, younger members. He said that there are currently 33 active members, and there were 38 members five years ago. Carson added, the age range of the department’s members is between 40 and 70.
“Young kids are leaving the area. There’s no businesses keeping them here,” said Carson. He added, “you’ve got to have a love for it, a love to help the community.”
However, Carson added it certainly helps having the bunker program at the Fire Academy right in the village. Especially when the fire department’s drivers may be busy during the day.
“Mutual aid is crucial,” he added.
Carson said they look for new members by talking to people. He added he has been thinking of doing more advertising to recruit others.
Odessa’s Chief Mike Tomassi said through being out in the community and making the public aware, the Odessa Fire Department has gained members over the years. He said the department currently has 44 active members, and five years ago had 32. However, Tomassi said that the department does a lot of mutual aid calls from other departments because recruitment is not up all over the area.
Odessa also has a Junior Program. He explained that teenagers in the program have the chance to take state classes in preparation of being a certified fire fighter.
Tomassi said there are currently eight teenagers in it for Odessa. He added that active members range in age from 18 to mid-70s.
Hammondsport Chief Bill Fries Jr. said recruitment for his department has been steady. He said there are currently about 50 active members, and that is about as many as there were five years ago. He added that membership has been down as low as 45 people in recent years. Fries also said that if there is a fire call during the day, there are between 20 and 25 of those members that respond.
Fries said that for Hammondsport, recruitment is done through word of mouth and just getting out into the community. He explained the department draws in new people who move into the area.
However, Fries said Hammondsport is suffering from not having younger members. He explained the department has three members in the junior program, age 13 to 17, but no active members between 18 and 21. Of the 50 members, Fries said 10 are between 21 and 30. He said the rest are over 31 years old.

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