By Melanie Haid
In Nassau County, many volunteer fire departments face a shortage of new recruits, which, officials say, is directly affecting their ability to answer calls and keep their communities safe.
As membership in volunteer fire departments continues to decline, most places are seeing difficulties retaining members and attracting new ones.
National decline seen locally
There has been an overall national decline in volunteer firefighters since the 1990s. Volunteers make up 69 percent — or 759,000 — of the nation’s roughly 1.1 million firefighters, according to a recent report by the National Fire Protection Association. That number represents a 12 percent decline in volunteer membership since 1984. The trend has been seen in Nassau, local fire officials say.
Robert Presti Jr., chief of the North Merrick Fire Department, who has been a volunteer for 31 years, has seen firsthand the effects of the decrease in volunteers. While he said there are now fewer fire calls and more ambulance and auto accidents to cover, firefighters are still needed. “The biggest emergency is the retention in our membership,” Presti said. “We’re [having] a really hard time getting the members we’ve seen years ago.”
“We’re having a really hard time getting the members we’ve seen years ago.”
There are many reasons for the decline over the last 30 years, with the biggest factor being lack of time. According to the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York, other factors include “family and financial responsibilities, the economy, and current volunteers aging, retiring or moving out of state.”
Jim Kane, former chief of the East Meadow Fire Department, who is a 32-year volunteer, said fires do not consume the most time for volunteers. “Automatic fire alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, EMS calls … we need more education to prevent unnecessary calls for the safety of the community and the members of their respective fire departments,” Kane said.
Third-generation firefighter Ryan Motch, 21, a volunteer in Great Neck and junior at Adelphi University, has been involved in the fire department for longer than his eight-year official membership. “Good members fluctuate a lot,” Motch said. “A good member is local [and] typically has a blue collar job, but that is on the decline as more people go white [collar] and go to college. It takes a lot of commitment, something I can’t always give being a student and working.”
Fire departments have tried over the years to involve a greater number of volunteers. Departments across Nassau were supposed to have taken part this weekend in the seventh annual RecruitNY campaign, which was created in 2013 as an outreach program to raise awareness of all the fire departments do and sign up new members. The event, which should have taken place at the Nassau County Firefighter’s Museum & Education Center in Garden City, was canceled, however, because of the coronavirus.