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Volunteer Fire Companies Struggle To Recruit, And It's Not Just About COVID


BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) - This weekend, April 24 and 25, volunteer fire companies throughout New York State will host events with the hope they'll attract new recruits. It's not been easy finding and keeping volunteer firefighters. While COVID has changed the way they've conducted operations and training, the pandemic isn't the only reason why recruiting has been challenging.

Each year, the Firemen's Association of the State of New York (FASNY) coordinates a recruitment weekend, in which hundreds of halls schedule their own open houses or other outreach programs. (Click here for a full list of events scheduled this weekend.)

The Snyder Fire Hall, which hosts its event Saturday morning beginning at 10 a.m., hopes to draw some interested individuals. Captain Zach Polvino noted programs made available through Erie 1 BOCES and Daemen College that give young men and women a first taste of life as a first responder. And it's hoped some could find their way to Snyder Fire Company's headquarters.
“Sometimes young kids, young adults don't know that there's an opportunity out there,” he said. “We have to do a better job as a fire department of telling that story and saying, hey, look, we're out here. You can volunteer with us and go through those programs in college or high school.”

WBFO forwarded a request to FASNY asking for data on the downward trend of volunteers. That request was never answered, but state lawmakers have also recognized a growing challenge to recruit and keep volunteer firefighters. Last fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the formation of a one-year task force to study the trend and explore how to encourage more participation.

In the State Senate bill, COVID is blamed in great part for volunteer fire company challenges. Polvino says struggles to find new talent predate the pandemic. Among the other reasons why they're having trouble, he suggests, is "being a victim of their own success" in an affluent community such as Snyder. While they operate like a professional company, they're not paid pros. But many in the public don't understand that.

"Our rigs are are well taken care of. Our members are given the top-line turnout gear and equipment. We pay for top-end training and we train pretty regularly and pretty hard. Sometimes we've heard from the public, 'we didn't know that you're volunteer, we thought you were a paid service,'” he said.

COVID has affected how fire companies train their staff. Polvino says it has also adversely affected their important community outreach efforts, including open houses and an annual 5K run.

“Some of these events that you do on a regular, a yearly basis, you're not doing anymore, or they're postponed because of COVID,” he said. “It does take a little bit of a toll, I think. And it's, you know, part of the larger issues I think that we're all facing, right? Kind of that COVID fatigue.”

Polvino acknowledged the pandemic's influence inspiring many students to pursue public health as a career path. He suggests it's too soon to determine whether the COVID crisis and its impact on society may be inspiring some to get into firefighting. But his company, and others throughout the state, are hoping some who visit their halls this weekend will want to come back as trainees, and later participants in the critical community service.