© 2023 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Emergency services suffering from lack of volunteers

Recently, a local volunteer department was late responding to a fire in the town of LeRay in Jefferson County. The mutual aid system was activated and a nearby department responded to the blaze; fortunately, no one was hurt. But the incident did highlight a persistent and growing problem among the north country's primarily volunteer emergency services: a lack of manpower.


The call went out for a house fire in the town of LeRay on May 21 at 8:27 in the morning. The fire was in the territory of the Evans Mills Fire Department, but it wasn't until the second call went out that a volunteer responded on the radio. It took up to eight minutes for a volunteer to arrive on scene. That might sound fast, but First Assistant Fire Chief Shawn Rutmanis says firefighters are usually out the door in two to three minutes. Those minutes matter – fire grows fast.


After getting no response from the first call for help, Rutmanis requested mutual aid from nearby departments, and Fort Drum responded first.


 "If Fort Drum wasn't there, we probably would have lost the house, instead of saving the house," Rutmanis said.


The incident was the first time in his eight years as assistant chief that no volunteer responded to a first call for help, Rutmanis said. He says if it happens again, he'll be faster in activating the mutual aid system. The trouble is manpower – especially during daytime work hours.


"Being that time of the morning, everybody's got jobs," he said. "It's a volunteer organization, it's tough to get manpower Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; everybody's working. It's just hard to get people to respond to a call."


Joseph Plummer is director of fire and emergency management for Jefferson County. He said the lack of volunteers isn't new, but it has gotten worse over time. And it's a big problem, because volunteers are the backbone of emergency protection in the north country.


Plummer says the aging population of the area is partly to blame.


"Firefighting is a young person's game, and, you know, our aging population, they aren't able to go rushing into burning buildings. It's very, very physically demanding and very stressful and everything else," he said.


Demographics aren't the only problem, though. Plummer and Rutmanis agree that society has just gotten busier in recent decades. Many people have multiple jobs to make ends meet, kids are more committed to after-school activities, and men are more involved in their children's lives, heading off to soccer practice after dinner, rather than to the firehouse. Women, too, are busier, more likely to work, and for longer hours than in the '70s and '80s.


Lance Ronas heads up the Indian River Ambulance Service, an independent, nonprofit outfit that combined the ailing ambulance services of the Theresa, Antwerp and Philadelphia fire departments. He said just as people's free time has been declining, the educational requirements for fire and EMS volunteers have been growing.


"There is the curriculum that was 140 hours for just the didactic portion of becoming a basic EMT," he said. "Then you had 16 hours of clinical time. Now that's going to 190 hours and the clinical time is going to double. So, now, just to become an EMT, you now have to devote over 200 hours of time."


Ronas said consolidating like the ambulance services could help the region’s fire departments struggling with a relative lack of volunteers. But the EMS world is more open to this idea than the world of firefighting. Firehouses are bastions of tradition and take pride in their local identities. That can be a source of strength, but also means fire departments are less open to change.


Rutmanis also acknowledged that tradition is a huge factor in preventing mergers.


"The identity of the Evans Mills Fire Department is Evans Mills," he said. "And it's always been Evans Mills and, you know, as long as I'm here, it's going to stay Evans Mills."


Rutmanis said consolidation could mean traveling longer distances – and losing precious time – in order to respond to fire calls – although longer response times may be preferable to no response at all.