Volunteer firefighting in the Capital Region

Volunteer Firefighting Composite
By Liz Clancy Lerner

On Tuesday night a fire broke out at a home on Mohawk Road in Niskayuna. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the fire required 35 firefighters and five trucks to fight. Many of those working on the fire were volunteer firefighters, people with full-time jobs that don't involve fighting fires.

Outside of the Capital Region's cities, volunteers provide much of the fire coverage. The number of volunteer fire departments here is quite substantial: Albany County has 41, Rensselaer has 49, Schenectady has 22 and Saratoga has 45.

So, why does the Capital Region have so many volunteer departments? What kind of training is required to become a volunteer firefighter? And, how many fires do these departments end up fighting?

I spoke with a fire district chief and a volunteer firefighter to find out how it works...

Sean Muldowney has been the chief of the Niskayuna Fire District 2 for a year, and has been with the district for 14 years.

Why does Niskayuna have a volunteer fire district?

They volunteer fire department was established in 1942. Usually fire departments start out as volunteer and if the call volume gets too high they may hire paid firefighters.

Number of calls is the main reason. Most paid departments run a larger number of calls. Also -- I find it here -- when I first moved up from NYC and I got to know the community a lot better. If I didn't join here I probably wouldn't know any of the people in Niskayuna other than the ones I saw at my children's school events ... it's a good social environment. You get to know the community.

What happens when there is a call?

A typical response time for our department is 3-4 minutes. The three chiefs each have a district vehicle that allows us to rapidly respond and assess the situation and needs. Through weekly department training, New York State courses and courses at the New York State Fire Academy, our members are highly trained and provide excellent care and service.

The funding comes from taxes, does that cover everything?

The funding for the equipment and everything is taxpayers. We do a fundraiser during the year and that's for social expenses. Because we have the district and the company and it's two different entities. The district is the firefighting, the EMS and the rescue and the gear, all our tools, the building. The company is a social aspect: the dinners, the clambakes, the potato chips, the coffee, the soda.

Is that good incentive for people, the social aspect?

There are a lot of benefits, we have an exercise room which the members use. This allows our members the opportunity to stay fit and promote wellness within the department. As an added benefit, the members' spouses are allowed to use the exercise plan.

Most people do it for the camaraderie and the fact that you are helping people.

What does it take to become a volunteer firefighter?

People can just walk in and get an application. We do an interview and an arson check and go from there. We meet every Monday night for training. There are two paths: "firefighter one" or "EMT." The new people go on a 6 month probation while they learn rescue and medical skills. All the classes are paid for. We want everyone to go on everything. They need to know what they're doing at a car accident and at a fire, etc.

How many volunteers do you currently have?

About 40 volunteers right now.

How many calls for fires do you get?

We are fortunate that we have very few fires. 70 percent are medical, 15 percent are rescue and the rest are fire.

How many calls do you get during a typical year?

It really varies -- we have gone a few days with no calls before and I've looked down at my pager to make sure it's working and then there are days where it's non-stop. Probably on average we have about 650 calls a year.

What's the back up plan? What happens if no volunteers can come to a fire?

There is a thing called mutual aid -- a call will go out and other fire departments will help us.

Why do you do it?

You're part of a community and you're helping others. It's great.

____

Katie Keller is a 23 year old volunteer firefighter with the Scotia fire district (they have about 30 volunteers). She has been volunteering for 2.5 years.

What attracted you to volunteer firefighting?

I'm a 4th or 5th generation firefighter. My mom is a paid firefighter at Albany Airport and she really inspires me. My dad is the chief at Scotia and my step-dad is a firefighter -- it's been a big part of my life.

Why do you do it?

The number of volunteers in general in this country is dwindling. If you don't do it, who's going to? You need to take care of your neighbors.

It becomes a part of who you are. You get to know everyone from cops to town workers to the highway department. I work for Mohawk Ambulance, so this type of work is my passion.

What kind of training did you have to go through?

I went through Firefighter One [a training course]. It was physically demanding -- you have to do everything the guys do, from car fires to structure fires. It was about 3 months long. I'm 4'11", but I was able to keep up.

Can you tell me more about the physical challenges of training and responding to calls?

Hose advancement is a challenge. You have to be able to hold on to a nozzle with 100 [pound per square inch of pressure] going through the line, but there is a person behind you to back you up. The thing is, you will always have someone with you. It is a team effort.

Are there mental challenges, too?

Well, people don't call you because they want to. They call you because they need to. If I can help calm down a mother and make family members more comfortable during a call, I've succeeded.

What would you say to another woman who wants to volunteer, but may be intimidated by the whole thing?

You can do anything a guy can do, if not better.

It's hard work, but so much fun. You get to learn the science behind a fire and most importantly, you get to help people.

Comments

My hubby used to be a volunteer firefighter, and now he's interested in getting his EMT certification. We live in the city of Albany now though, so we're afraid that obtaining the certification will be expensive. Can anyone advise on how to go about it?

Thank you so much for this! My dad has been a volunteer firefighter for over 30 years (and counting) and the chief of the company for over 20 of those years. These people risk their lives to keep us safe, and aren't compensated for their bravery. Thank you for highlighting how important these people are to many communities in our region!

I have been a volunteer firefighter for over a decade in the capital region. While i support every department to the fullest I think there should be some talk about consolidation of departments. Volunteer departments are being hit hard by a lack of manpower and struggling to get trucks off the floor. As your stats show, there are a lot of departments in the area, consolidation would mean departments could combine their efforts. I'm not saying closing station, but just combining departments in name only. Might also help on fire district taxes....

I second Crystal's comment. We don't give these people nearly enough accolades for all the hard work and bravery that they put in on our behalf. Thank you for giving us all a reminder to say "Thank You".

I love this story - my cousin has been a volunteer firefighter in Maine for 30 years. He loves it. I have to ask who takes the pics for these stories - because I am really enjoying the pictures!

Liz,

Thanks for a great article. When I became a volunteer EMT, I had no idea how much of our emergency services were provided on a volunteer basis, both fire and EMS.

@Summer: There are a number of departments and rescue squads that will let you join and put you through EMT training without having to be a resident of the district. Try giving one nearby your part of the city a call. Western Turnpike Rescue Squad, Altamont Rescue Squad, and Rensselear Ambulance all come immediately to mind. Another option would be to enroll in the class given @ HVCC. It's about $800 iirc.

@DB: Consolidation is certainly going to happen, like it or not. In many places the mapping of fire districts:municipal districts is not 1:1, which greatly complicates things.

The loss of volunteers is, imho, in part, due to the increased burden of regulation put on these organizations by the State. The amount of training required not only to get and keep a Basic EMT certification is large enough, but all the additional training that is being required puts the time commitment beyond what many people can spare. Add to that the increased demand placed on these organizations and if gets even harder to spend time volunteering. They can and will take every moment you can provide because there are not enough volunteers, a vicious spiral.

In 2005 I ended up volunteering over 1,000 hours at the rescue squad between my regular 12 hour weekly ambulance shift, weekend shifts, filling in for volunteer and paid staff that called in sick, and taking on an executive role. Such hours are extreme but 500-700 hours a year is not atypical for these folks. Add in another 25-75 hours of required training a year and it starts to get crazy.

Also contributing is a lack of shift based work and flexible employers. At one point in time, you could count on there being four or five folks in town during the day who could run and fetch the fire truck from the station. No so anymore. Many departments are lucky to scramble any crew during daylight hours. Ambulance squads have mostly gone to paid daytime staff, even in rural areas. Even with that, not everyone can afford the time. Two years ago, the mill fire in Schagticoke had 13 departments on scene, all volunteer, some for as long as two or three days iirc. I know my lovely wife was glad for a great boss who didn't mind she missed a day of wok to be there for 14 hours. No everyone is as understanding.

In any case, you are most correct, these folks deserve a huge thanks for 'doing this to help our neighbors'.

@komradebob
Just to back up your statement. In Saratoga County there are 45 volunteer fire districts. However there are only 25 town, villages and cities in Saratoga County. The city of Saratoga is excluded since it is a paid district. Thats just about a 2 fire districts for every municipality. Something doesn't seem right there. However most municipalities only have one Rescue Squad/Ambulance service.
I think some areas are hesitant of consolidation because they don't want to loose their own identity however it seems to be in their best interest based on declining volunteerism.

@Carol: Liz took those photos -- and you're right, she is a good photographer. One of the many reasons we're happy she's working with AOA.

@DB

In many cases, I think the fire districts map to villages, unincorporated or not. Many of the ones I know in Northern Renss county map to geography more closely than municipality. Probably the boundaries predate collecting taxes to support the departments and are centered around 'Al's barn, where we can put the fire engine we all pitched in to buy'. That alone has probably driven identity for a long time.

Consolidation will happen, either through attrition or legislation. And our communities will loose history and service somewhere along the way.

Would be interesting to look at that history. But I suspect Liz has better things to research. :)


By the way, a link to toot the horn of someone who likes this stuff:

http://www.timesunion.com/business/article/Bridget-McGivern-Teacher-to-the-rescue-560751.php

Agreed, all. They do deserve a big "thank you."

And thank you, Carol.

komrade - I'm sure the history is fascinating. I'll see what the NY State Firefighter museum has about our area.

Great article

Volunteering it the Golden Rule in action. The unstinting commitment from volunteers all too often goes without a second though from the community.
Just a few weekends ago at the Slingerlands traffic circle I saw a volunteer with his blue lights on directing traffic while the Bethlehem Police responded to a minor fender-bender. Who knows if he was even in his district volley or if he was just minding his own & just knew how to help?
My brother, a volunteer in Columbia County, responded to an accident he saw while vacationing in Arizona.
It seems it’s 1% of the population who carries 100% of the load.
Fantatic and inspirational article.

Fantastic article! As a 20 year member of two different volunteer organizations 15 in one and 5 in the other, I have enjoyed the service, met lots of wonderful people and would highly recommend the service to any person who wants to contribute to their community.

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