Dozens of students from Elmont Memorial and Sewanhaka high schools gathered at the Elmont Fire Department’s district building on Oct. 14 for an open house recruitment day. EFD 1st Assistant Chief Robert Falco and Recruitment Coordinator Richard Balsan helped guide the students through several demonstrations, including how to use the Jaws of Life rescue tool to rip open a vehicle to extract a crash victim, offer medical aid and extinguish a car or building fire.
“We’ve been going to schools and showing presentations for 20 years now, but this is the second time we’ve decided to invite them out here so they can see what we have,” Falco said.
Balsan added that the department signed up 33 new volunteer recruits at last year’s open house, and he said he was excited to see about 45 young people show up this year. He said the department needs new recruits because of a decline in volunteers — which is also true in many communities beyond Elmont.
Volunteers comprise 70 percent of firefighters across the U.S., but their ranks have been dwindling in recent decades, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. In its 2015 report on recruitment and retention, the NVFC found that the number of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders dropped by 12 percent over the past 30 years. The report indicated that the drop would leave “nearly half of U.S. communities at increased risk during emergencies.”
Elmont Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Ralph Esposito touched on the subject during the State of Elmont meeting this spring, saying that the Elmont Fire Department was having trouble keeping young volunteers. As a result, the department has increasingly relied on older volunteers.
“I can’t even keep them for five years,” Esposito said. “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 younger volunteers. 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. The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2016, a majority of Elmont residents were 35 years old or older. In Franklin Square, the majority of residents were 40 and older.
The NVFC also found, however, that a key to recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters was creating a family atmosphere within a department. That was one of the appeals for Brandon Fils-Aime, 17, an Elmont Memorial student who signed up for the Explorers Club after last year’s open house. Fils-Aime explained that his brother, a volunteer for the EFD’s Engine 1, taught him all about the department and inspired him to join.
“It’s all about brotherhood here and helping out your community,” Fils-Aime said.
Engine 2’s second lieutenant, Christopher Pierre, said he sticks to the brotherhood theme when recruiting, and believes that by constantly appealing to young members of the community, the Elmont department can maintain a large number of volunteers, even if they don’t stay for long.
As Pierre showed students how to put on firefighting equipment, he said the open house was equally important for the Elmont Memorial and Sewanhaka students, who were mostly black, Hispanic and Indian. “There’s this big misconception about the demographics in firefighting, that it’s just a white thing,” said Pierre, whose Engine 2 boasts a large number of Haitian-American volunteers. “But we represent everyone in our communities.”
Rigu Jose, an Indian immigrant and volunteer for Engine 1, said he agreed that he felt a sense of community in the department. He had attended Gotham Avenue School and Elmont Memorial, and said he was glad to meet old classmates again at the Fire Department when he joined in 2013. The department, he said, provided him with a chance to work for his community and help inspire young people like John Cazeau, 14, to join.
“I’m definitely interested in joining Engine 1, so I plan on joining the Explorers,” Cazeau said after trying on Jose’s equipment.
Falco said that by providing free classes for emergency services and tuition to Nassau County Community College, networking opportunities and a chance to become full-time firefighters for the Nassau County or New York City, the Elmont department could help introduce students to a potential career. For now, it is welcoming anyone interested in joining in a full department briefing at its district building on School Road.
“No one ever gets turned down,” Falco said. “We’ve even had 53-year-olds show up to join.”