A sense of family: Even you can join the volunteer services

By TED WADDELL
Posted 10/13/21

SWAN LAKE, NY — It’s no secret, but volunteer fire companies across the nation are facing a shortage in members. Sullivan County is no exception.

In recent decades, as society evolves …

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A sense of family: Even you can join the volunteer services

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SWAN LAKE, NY — It’s no secret, but volunteer fire companies across the nation are facing a shortage in members. Sullivan County is no exception.

In recent decades, as society evolves with the ongoing demands of financial obligations and time available, it’s getting ever more difficult for volunteer fire departments, especially those in rural communities, to attract new members and retain experienced firefighters.

The Empire State has approximately 1,800 volunteer departments, and to address the issue of recruitment and retention. In November 2020, former governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to create the New York State Recruitment and Retention Task Force.

The Sullivan County Bureau of Fire was a step ahead. in July 2020, Jill Holland, a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Kauneonga Lake Fire District, asked the assemblage, “What can we do about recruitment and retention?”

New recruits talk about why they joined the local fire service

Tabitha Homenick, 21, is a member of the Upper Delaware Volunteer Ambulance Corps and a new recruit in the Callicoon Fire Department. She is pictured participating in a training exercise at the Sullivan County Emergencies Training Center. The exercise was conducted by NYS Fire Instructor Tom Dempsey Sr., who put the students through their paces in getting into full turnout gear in less than a minute.
Tabitha Homenick, 21, is a member of the Upper Delaware Volunteer Ambulance Corps and a new recruit in the Callicoon Fire Department. She is pictured …

Tabitha Homenick, 21, is a new recruit at the Callicoon Fire Department who joined the local fire service last year, and is working her way through the basic firefighting course at the state-of-the-art training center.

A graduate of the Sullivan West High School Class of 2018, after she dropped out of college she joined the Upper Delaware Volunteer Ambulance Corps (UDVAC) in Hankins in 2019 and a year later signed up with the mostly volunteer fire department.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I’m very interested in the medical field,” she said of taking a break from education. After a friend told her about the UDVAB, she earned her EMT certification.

So far, Homenick has attended classes in exterior firefighting and plans to go to the next level of training, which includes interior firefighting.

Asked why she joined the fire and emergency medical services as a volunteer, she replied, “I really like being involved in this type of stuff... I like helping people and it keeps me occupied in a good way.”

A message to her peers, the next generation of future firefighters?

“For a long time, I never really understood why people wanted to volunteer. It was ‘I would never do that, it’s not for me,’ but once I got into it, I learned how much I enjoyed it and what it was really all about.”

Homenick is part of a rehabilitation team, a new initiative being formed by the county’s fire service, one that will help fellow firefighters deal with major events. Those are described by Hauschild as “wildland fires, hotel fires, drowning calls, or mass casualty incidents,” high-stress incidents that can last for several days and involve several departments and agencies.

“It’s a sense of family,” Homenick said of the local fire services, adding, “You have this big family you can hang out with.”

 
 

As things rapidly progressed, Sullivan County Fire Coordinator John S. Hauschild and former Sullivan County Commissioner of Public Safety Rick Sauer joined Holland to spearhead a collaborative effort of the Association of Fire Districts of Sullivan County, the Sullivan County Volunteer Firefights Association, fire chiefs, and the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire.

To get the ball rolling, a survey was sent out to all 40 fire districts in the county, basically asking folks if they thought recruitment and retention was an issue, and if so, what could be done about it.

The overall response was 72.75 percent (53 out of 76), with 98 percent of the departments that replied saying that they were interested in participating in a countywide recruitment and retention program.

With these positive results posted in the record books, a task force was formally created, one that includes the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire coordinator, a deputy fire coordinator, fire chiefs, members from the Association of Fire Districts of Sullivan County, and the Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association.

The first meeting of the task force was convened on March 24, and a social media campaign was launched on April 24.

According to Hauschild, the stated mission is to “assist the fire service of Sullivan County, NY, with increasing membership and improving retention for the benefit and safety of the communities we serve,” all under the initiative headline “Join Sullivan County Fire.”

“I grew up in the fire service, my stepdad Allan Wolkoff was a 50-year member of the Rock Hill Fire Department... he was my role model,” said Holland, adding that her 19-year old son Allan joined the local company at the age of 16.

Although her stepdad passed in January, the family tradition of volunteer service to the firefighting community continues as Holland’s brother Darryl Mitchel and her uncle Jody are chiefs in the Rock Hill department.

“Since we are in such a rural community it’s hard to find help, a lot of people work during the day, a lot of people feel there time is such a huge commitment,” said Holland, making the point that joining a local fire department as a volunteer is more than just fighting fire, it’s “a sense of family.”

Hauschild said that what the local volunteer fire departments are looking for is “anybody who can contribute time... you don’t have to run into burning buildings, you can join the fire police in your district to direct traffic, drive the apparatus, become an engineer, join a dive team or extrication team, swift water rescue team, or a trench and building collapse team.”

The list is almost endless, but it all requires a high level of training, under the guidance of a cadre of dedicated New York State fire instructors, starting out with a basic firefighting course, and going on to more advanced, highly specialized training.

“Some of the departments have auxiliaries, both male and female, because they want to give back to the community. There’s a lot people can do,” Hauschild added.

Addressing the subject on the nationwide issue of recruitment and retention, and how it filters down to the local level, he said, “It’s important to get people at a young age, and then try to get them to stay... they join at 16, then go to college, but don’t come back. That’s the problem we have in Sullivan County.”

According to the county’s fire coordinator, future plans for recruitment are being ironed out with Sullivan County BOCES to bring the pitch for new firefighters into the local schools, as a way getting young blood into the fire services.

To help spread the word about the Recruitment and Retention Task Force, they recently published a couple of promotional pamphlets titled “Is There a Fire in You?”

For more information on these publications, sponsored by the Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association, visit FireinYou.org.

In conclusion – racking hose

According to the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), volunteer fire departments save taxpayers more than $5 billion annually, as opposed to the cost of an all-career firefighting force.

For more information about the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire’s Recruitment and Retention Task Force, visit Facebook or Instagram at Join Sullivan County Fire, or email at Joinsullivanfire@gmail.com.

 

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