Our Youth Are the Future of the Fire Service

By Lyle B. Holland, FASNY Recruitment and Retention Committee

Look at FASNY’s Recruitment and Retention website at www.recruitny.org. We have it all: action videos with loud music, pictures and posters to get the kids pumped up!

Take them to your schools and get your kids excited about joining. Once you have them in your department, train with them and keep them excited. Do something different all the time: hose lays, air packs, rappelling with ropes, how to run the pumps, and on and on.

If they don’t want to be there, we can’t make them stay. So we must make it fun, rewarding and challenging so they will want
to stay.

To me, the most important part of training is teaching brotherhood: We have each other’s backs, we are a team, we work together and we play together. This is the glue that binds the fire service!

I have been on the Recruitment and Retention Committee for a couple of years now. Most of the members are from areas with bigger populations, so when we talk about TV and radio ads and service awards, that didn’t fit the area I live in.

When we see news coverage on recruitment, it shows volunteer fire companies in the Buffalo area. People from my area don’t make the connection that we need that help too.

So let me tell you about where I’m coming from. I live in Westfield, New York, located on Lake Erie near the Pennsylvania border. We have about 3,500 people in the village and 1,500 more in the township. Most of our money comes from farming and some small businesses. Our fire department had 78 members in the 1970s and ‘80s, but now we have 40. In Chautauqua County, we have no TV stations, but we do have two small radio stations and two small daily newspapers – one at each end of the county.

Chautauqua County is one of many counties in this state to have the same problems that I mentioned above. So what do we do? I started to investigate Explorer and junior firefighter programs.

The Explorer program was the easiest to track in New York. There are 167 fire posts with 2,049 youths. There are 27 EMS posts with 213 youths. It was hard to get numbers on junior firefighter programs as there is no central database, but I do know that there are a lot of juniors out there.

I guess I am biased about Explorer posts because I have worked with them over the years. I like that there is structure in this scouting program that makes it easy to run. The rules are already set for you in black and white. The age of the youth in this program is 14 to 20 and most departments take members in at 18. The drawback with the Explorer program is New York State will not let the youth go to fire schools.

In the junior firefighter program, individuals can join at 16 and are able to go to Office of Fire Prevention and Control classes with their parents’ consent.

Some departments are very good at setting guidelines for the youth. My hope is that all have good guidelines.

In Westfield, we had an Explorer post for about 10 years with the same two leaders and we were able to get some great firefighters out of it. Unfortunately, like anything in the fire service, sometimes we don’t have people to step up and take over.

In our case, the leaders got burned out and couldn’t keep the program going. This past year, we had two new firefighters – a year out of Firefighter 1 – take over the program and they are doing a great job! I am sure similar things happen with junior firefighter programs elsewhere.

There are pros and cons for both groups. You have to decide what will be good for your own department.

My experience has shown that once we get the fire service in their blood, they will stay in the fire service for a long time.