The Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department joined hundreds of fire departments across New York State as they took part in the annual Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s RecruitNY open house on Sunday. The event invited residents to visit their local firehouses and watch live demonstrations of fire fighters in action to educate and inspire them to volunteer.
For the Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department, the RecruitNY event served as yet another opportunity to attract new volunteers to help meet increasing demand. With nearly 500 calls so far this years, FSMFD officials said they expect 2019 to be yet another record year for calls.
“The calls are up, but membership is down,” Head Chief John Salzman said.
Volunteers comprise more than 70 percent of all firefighters across the nation, but their ranks have steadily declined over the past three decades, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. In its 2014 report on recruitment and retention, the NVFC found that the number of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders has dropped by 12 percent in the past 30 years. The report indicated that the drop would leave “nearly half of U.S. communities at increased risk during emergencies,” the report’s authors wrote.
The trend has continued in 2019. While the FSMFD has some 104 volunteers, Chief Dominick Labianca said, the department needs double that number to operate at its highest efficiency.
And what fire departments need the most is “young volunteers,” he said.
The RecruitNY event, unlike the FSMFD’s usual visit to H. Frank Carey High School, allowed the department to show off its equipment and work with teenagers and young adults. The firefighters extinguished a school bus that was set on fire, used the Jaws of Life emergency extraction tool to break apart a car door to rescue a driver and demonstrated how to equip SCBA air masks. While the FSMFD aimed to attract young-adult volunteers, the chiefs also hoped to recruit teenagers for their Explorers program, which prepares teenagers ages 14 to 18 to become full-fledged members at the firehouse.
FSMFD Explorers Captain Tiamani Ferrone, 16, said the Explorers program not only goes through essential firefighting training, but also dives into basic emergency medical technician training. Ferrone, who said she wants to become an EMT, explained that there was just enough of everything available at the department to attract and retain volunteers.
“I want to study medicine when I go to college, so the EMT training is my favorite part and a good opportunity,” she said.
Telegraphing the message of “opportunity and availability” has proven difficult, though. Elmont Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Ralph Esposito touched on the subject during the State of Elmont meeting in early April, saying the Elmont Fire Department was having trouble keeping young volunteers. As a result, the department, like many others, relies on older volunteers.
“Most of the guys right now are like me, and I’m going to be 75 years old,” Esposito said. “I can’t even keep [young volunteers] for five years. They don’t last.”
Esposito and other members of the Elmont and Franklin Square communities blamed the rising cost of living for the drop in youth engagement. Because Nassau County is one of the most expensive counties in the nation, Esposito said younger residents choose to leave Elmont for more affordable locations and jobs. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2016, a majority of Elmont residents were age 35 or older. The figure was 40 and older in Franklin Square.
The NVFC’s recruitment report revealed that the amount of time-consuming training required to be a firefighter was one of the biggest reasons why people stop volunteering or drop out of preparatory programs in their fire departments. The report advised fire departments and academies to allow online classes, as well as more training to be conducted at the firehouses where the volunteers will eventually serve.
Heeding the agency’s advice, the Franklin Square and Munson Fire Department is adapting to the times. Chief Joseph Gerrato said that while most of the training used to take place at the Nassau County Fire Services Academy in Bethpage, the FSMFD has brought more classes to the firehouse to accommodate volunteers and cut down on travel time. Gerrato said most young adults’ time is consumed by school, work and even a second job, so fire departments need to find a way to work with those hectic schedules.
“It’s hard for people to make time, and it gets harder when you don’t get paid for this volunteer position,” Gerrato said. “Most of New York runs on volunteers.”
The National Volunteer Fire Council recruitment report also found that the lack of a paid salary was a big factor in keeping people from volunteering. To make up for this, the FSMFD offers incentives like scholarships for public schools, free training, property-tax reimbursements and a pension-like program for retirees.
While such incentives help with recruitment, the national fire council’s report showed that firefighters mainly stuck around with their local departments because of family connections. Most of the firefighters surveyed by the NVFC in 2015 were invited by family members or friends to join.
It is the same for most of the volunteers at the FSMFD. For example, Head Chief Salzman is the son of a former chief. Salzman said he started with the Fire Department when he was 14. Salzman’s fiancée, Gabriella Golden, and her father, Martin, also comes from a line of firefighters in Franklin Square and Brooklyn. Martin, who has been with the FSMFD for 41 years, said self-satisfaction was the biggest reward of volunteering. Most volunteer firefighters surveyed by NVFC agreed.
“At the end of the day, this is all about helping your neighbors,” Salzman said. “That’s why we all joined.”