Bolstering their ranks at a time when volunteers are in short supply, Jefferson and Lewis counties added 33 new firefighters to their rolls as two classes graduated from state training this month.
Volunteer first responders have received much legislative attention lately with the passage of the so-called Webster provision, named for two volunteer firefighters who were killed by an arsonist-gunman while responding to a Christmas Eve blaze in the Rochester suburb. The new law provides for a mandatory sentence of life without parole for someone convicted of killing a volunteer first responder, the same penalty faced by criminals who kill police officers.
Firefighters view the passage of the law as a victory. But as recent attention has focused on what can go horribly wrong when first responders answer a call, a less noticeable obstacle these departments confront every day is simply maintaining their staffing level. Those who serve say the role requires strength, perseverance and commitment.
Adam J. Lundquist, second assistant chief in the West Carthage Fire Department, also is a state fire instructor in Lewis County.
He helps to facilitate the 90-hour course that trains volunteers to don self-contained breathing apparatus and enter a burning building.
That course, called Firefighter I, includes 28 classes and 15 practical skills.
The class is physically and mentally demanding and requires a substantial time commitment.
Candidates must be able to don 80 pounds of personal protective equipment including turnout coat, boots, pants, gloves, helmet, Nomex hood, breathing tank and mask in less than two minutes, be able to crawl through a 2-foot-by-2-foot hole and be able to handle a charged hose in which every gallon of water adds another 8 pounds.
It really is a lot to ask, Mr. Lundquist said.
On the plus side, the rewards, including the satisfaction of helping people in the community, are worth it, Mr. Lundquist said.
One thing is for sure: no one is doing it for the money.
Aside from a $200 tax refund that most volunteers put toward covering the cost of fuel burned traveling to and from the station and a modest 1 to 2 percent property tax break, volunteers receive no monetary compensation for their work, which they do because they love it and want to give something back to their municipalities.
Chief Charles M. Dillon said last year was a banner year for the Town of Watertown Fire Department.
The department added 12 members, the majority of whom still are very active, he said.
Mr. Dillon said his department is unique in Jefferson County because it draws volunteers from the city of Watertown, which does not have a volunteer department.
The department also bolsters participation by hosting rookie training as part of its weekly training meeting on Wednesday nights.
On those nights, firefighters teach residents interested in volunteering how to use the equipment to let them feel productive at a fire scene.
The Town of Watertown Fire Department receives 400 to 500 calls annually.
Not all volunteers are required to go through the 90-hour state course, which is offered only two or three times a year. Anyone who wants to help can join the department to provide support by securing fire scenes, participating in fundraising activities or helping to stow gear.
Mr. Dillon said his departments goal is to open up volunteer opportunities to as many residents as possible.
Retaining recruits often is the most difficult part of maintaining a volunteer departments rolls.
Many volunteers are active-duty military members on Fort Drum, Mr. Lundquist said. They are welcomed in the West Carthage department, though their military duties mean they often are called away from the community, either to move to a new duty station or to deploy overseas.
Mr. Lundquist said active-duty department members stick around from four months to four years. There are seven active-duty members on the rolls at West Carthage, which has 50 members, and three of them are deploying soon.
Additional training generally is required even after firefighters graduate from the 90-hour course.
As part of a probationary period following graduation, volunteers undergo training at their home departments on radio procedures and how to use tools such as the irons an ax and a Halligan bar tool and thermal-imaging cameras that help firefighters see inside smoke-filled buildings.
Joseph D. Plummer, Jefferson County director of fire and emergency management, said the county has seen a good level of interest from prospective volunteers and participation in the classes.
In fact, he said, theres so much interest the county is having a hard time keeping up with the demand.