October 22, 2021

Volunteer fire departments look to attract new recruits

Jamie Costa/staff reporter

Alexander Frisbie, second from right, of Cortlandville and Dwight Russell, right, of Virgil take part in a ladder training exercise Saturday led by Cortland County fire instructor Jay Riley, second from left, outside the Cortland County Regional Training Center in Cortlandville. Fire chiefs say applications to join volunteer units are down over the past decade.

Eric Levasseur of Cortlandville worked with 13 other volunteer firefighters Saturday at the Cortland County Regional Training Center in Cortlandville. Among the exercises were ladder drills.

Levasseur decided to volunteer to advance his career as an athletic trainer at SUNY Cortland. He said it will help him learn how to act, instead of react, in high adrenaline situations.

“I knew it was going to be a lot,” Levasseur said of the time commitment and training responsibilities. But he felt his time volunteering would help him as an athletic trainer at SUNY Cortland, learning how to act, instead of react, in high-adrenaline situations.

“Before COVID, I was very career-driven, but the athletic schedule isn’t as intense right now,” he said, but he hasn’t considered being with the department for more than two years.

“It’s hard to lose a firefighter after two or three years,” said Cortland Fire Chief Wayne Friedman.

But that’s the average amount of time volunteers spend at the Cortland Fire Department.

Lives change, as do time commitments; Friedman and Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish have seen a decrease in volunteer firefighter applications in the past 10 to 12 years.

“Not a lot of these young folks want to spend the time,” Irish said. “The ones that we are getting seem to be genuinely interested in it and that’s the type of person we actually want.”

When Irish first started training to become a firefighter in the 1970s, 39 training hours were required. Now, volunteers and career firefighters need close to 160 basic training hours.

The Cortland Fire Department stopped processing applications, training and recruitment 10 months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic. It hasn’t taken in a new volunteer in more than a year, during which it has received six applications, which it just started processing. This is not unusual in the past 10 years, Friedman said.

“People aren’t wanting to volunteer, it just hasn’t happened,” he said. “It’s not just in our department or the county or the state, it’s nationwide.”

“The socioeconomic demographics are different,” Friedman said. “People don’t have time to volunteer because some people are working two jobs to make ends meet and kids are in sports or extracurricular activities — the volunteer aspect is very challenging.”

The Cortland Fire Department has 24 active volunteers but Friedman said it’s not unusual for them to leave after a few years.

“Their life changes and they can’t do it anymore,” Friedman said. “It’s a hit when we lose people because we invest in them.”

When the city takes on a volunteer, the department is responsible for physicals, equipment and training. With the pandemic, it is also responsible for personal protective equipment.