FORESTVILLE, N.Y. — There are a little more than 1,800 volunteer fire departments across New York state, and as the calls for service rise, the number of men and women responding is on the decline.
The effort continues to recruit new volunteers to help save lives in their community.
“You get to be there for people on their worst days,” said Lynanne Woolley, of Forestville. “I’m an EMT and an exterior firefighter. So, I go on EMS calls, and I help outside the buildings when there’s a fire.”
Woolley is a member of the Forestville Volunteer Fire Department and is a third-generation firefighter, following in the bootsteps of her late grandfather, who was an active member for 58 years.
“It’s special now because my grandfather passed away,” she said. “So I feel like I get to kind of be around him a little bit while I’m down here.”
Nathan Rogers of Forestville is also taking after his grandfather, and serves as a volunteer, as well as an Air Force reservist.
It’s a really great feeling when you know you’re doing that and helping other people,” said Rogers.
He, along with Woolley, expressed interest thanks to a RecruitNY event, an annual statewide open house where the community is invited to stop by and join the roster.
“People have their own jobs,” said Rogers. “They have their own lives. They’re leaving whatever it is that they’re doing and coming to help.”
Department Chief Kyle Barthel leads a staff of 30 that goes on about 430 EMS, accident and fire calls a year.
“You’re giving back to your community,” said Barthel. “Someone calls and needs help, you’re there. You help them. You have the training. You can make a difference.”
He says since the pandemic, the annual April recruitment event has not generated a single volunteer.
“It’s extremely sad because we need the volunteers throughout, not just the county, but the state,” said Barthel. “The volunteer service is slowly dying away.”
Chief Barthel says reasons include the considerable time commitment, increased state training requirements and time spent away from family.
“We want to try and catch them really young before they start a family, so they can get all their training in and move on from there,” said Barthel.
“The last two years with RecruitNY has been very difficult,” said John D’Alessandro, Firemen’s Association of the State of New York secretary. “As we’re trying to get people in the front door, we’re losing people out the back door. It’s not so much disappointing, but it is frustrating because those of us that do it, know the personal benefits and rewards.”
John D’Alessandro is with the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, or FASNY, headquartered in Albany, representing volunteers with a variety of skill sets.
FASNY was founded back in 1872 and is coming up on celebrating its 150th anniversary next year.
“Volunteer first responders, firefighters, emergency medical personnel provide the vast majority of response in communities across New York and across the nation,” said D’Alessandro.
D’Alessandro says volunteers save the state roughly $5 billion a year in salaries.
He says there were 120,000 male and female volunteers across the state in the early 2000s, a number that has now been extinguished to about 80,000.
“It puts a larger burden,” said D’Alessandro. “It taxes the existing volunteer firefighters to do more. It is an unbelievably great feeling to know that when your friends, your families or your neighbors are probably having one of the worst days of their lives, you have the ability and the means to help them get through it in the best way possible.”
Just like Rogers and Woolley, who encourage others to give back, as well.
“Ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” said Rogers. “And it was really inspiring. And that’s really kind of what’s kept me here.”
“You get to know your community better,” said Woolley. “I really like helping people and the medical side of things and learning new things. And it’s kind of adventurous.”
Anyone interested in learning more can contact their local volunteer fire department.