Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish can list a myriad of reasons why his department sees fewer new firefighters than when he joined in 1974: longer training hours; more community wide competing volunteer opportunities; busier lives.
“The fire department used to be kind of a place of a hub of activity,” he said. “Now with a lot of the things people are doing, they don’t have a lot of time.”
New state legislation signed last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo will try to resolve this by creating the New York State Recruitment and Retention Task Force, states a news release from the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York.
The task force will study challenges to recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters. “Its mission is to develop recommendations and policy changes to assist fire departments across the state in boosting their ranks,” the association states.
That could help the Homer Fire Department, which is down to 62 active members from the 155 when Irish joined — down more than half. Irish added though that when he joined, Cortlandville did not have its own fire department and was part of Homer’s fire department.
“When I got in, it was a generational thing,” he said. Irish’s father, uncle and great-grandfather all served as firefighters.
The legislation, he said, could help bring length-of-service award programs to the state level and find better ways to entice new volunteers to join, then keep them once they do join.
The service awards provide volunteer firefighters with financial benefits based on their seniority, the firefighters association notes.
“I think this task force might be able to come up with newer ways or better ideas for municipalities to recover the tax incentives” of service awards or funding retirement programs, Irish said.
Not all local volunteer fire departments have been struggling, though.
The Cortlandville Fire Department has recruited six volunteers this year, bringing it up to 51, Assistant Chief Mike Biviano said. He credits this in part to advertising through fliers, social media and in the Cortland Standard.
Biviano, though, said he wasn’t sure why departments are having a hard time gaining new members.
“It’s hard to say what drives people into joining,” he said. Biviano, Irish’s nephew, joined the Cortlandville Fire Department because he grew up with relatives in fire departments.
For Eric Levasseur, 26, joining the Cortlandville department helped expand his knowledge of how to work in an emergency situation, he said.
The New Jersey native is an athletic trainer at SUNY Cortland. He said he joined the department in August to know how to react during an emergency beyond what he learned in college. Today, he’s training as an exterior firefighter and serves in support roles.
“It’s definitely the right fit for me,” he said. “You get to a scene and feel like you can make a difference.”
“It’s being able to act on something rather than react,” he said.