April 11, 2011
Firefighters bolster their ranks
Recruitment drive Saturday part of statewide effort to boost volunteers
VIRGIL — Firefighters at six Cortland County fire departments spent most of the day Saturday looking for new volunteers to join their ranks as part of a statewide recruiting effort.
"We're hoping to recruit some new members today," Fire Chief Michael Ten Kate said at Virgil's Fire Department. "It's the most important thing we can do to maintain our organization. The volunteer numbers are down and we definitely need more people."
Fire departments in Cortland, Homer, Marathon, McGraw, Preble and Virgil took part in Recruit New York, an event designed to find new volunteer firefighters across the state.
In Virgil and Marathon, firefighters recruited about eight volunteers total.
Volunteer firefighters in Virgil and Cortland said their departments have fewer volunteers than they did years ago.
Ten Kate said that having additional volunteers would give the department more flexibility.
"It's definitely is a challenge to maintain everything," Ten Kate said. "The people we do have end up doing a lot more because they see there's a need in the community so we try very hard to do that."
Ten Kate said the Virgil Fire Department has 34 volunteers. He said the number of volunteers is "definitely down from historic numbers."
"I think we're doing a little bit better than some of the other departments, but we're not where we should be," Ten Kate said.
The event creates an opportunity to recruit for some fire departments that do not typically look for new volunteers during the spring. Ten Kate said Virgil's fire department has never openly looked for volunteers outside of word-of-mouth recruitment.
On Saturday, five people signed up to become volunteer firefighters in Virgil and eight others picked up applications, Ten Kate said.
"We were thrilled," Ten Kate said of the number of recruits.
"Recruitment has got to be year-round," said Rob Leonard, a spokesman for the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, which organized the event with a number of other organizations. "At a time right now where the economy is tight, what better way than to help serve your community than to be a volunteer firefighter?"
Leonard said the number of volunteers in the state is down from 140,000 in the 1990s to under 90,000 today.
Volunteer firefighters need different types of training tailored to their specific positions, such as interior firefighters or emergency medical technicians, Ten Kate said.
The city of Cortland has 44 firefighters who assist the paid city firefighters on fire calls and provide other services, said Greg Maxwell, president of the Board of Engineers, which governs the city's volunteer firefighters. Maxwell said the number of volunteers is down from previous years.
Cortland had three new applicants near the end of the event Saturday. Maxwell said it was a good start for the department.
"This is the first year, so we weren't expecting double-figure additions," Maxwell said.
About six or seven people picked up applications to become volunteers at the Homer Fire Department. Fire Chief Mahlon Irish said the department has 79 volunteers.
Irish said the department has lost a few volunteers in recent years due to retirement.
Throughout the day, the fire departments conducted tours of their stations and gave visitors information about the benefits of volunteer firefighting, including the camaraderie firefighters build with one another and the sense of pride that comes with volunteerism.
People in Cortland and Virgil said they enjoy spending time as volunteer firefighters.
"It's really a rewarding way to spend your time," said Scott Elston, one of Virgil's assistant fire chiefs.
Cortland resident Kelly O'Brien said she spends about 30 hours a week volunteering.
Her responsibilities as a volunteer include being a fire investigator and secretary of the Board of Engineers. She said she also goes to fire scenes and makes sure all the firefighters are safe.
"It's always been a big family," O'Brien said of the Cortland firefighters.
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