With the number of volunteer firefighters on the decline for decades, departments are turning to a key source for recruits. Youth programs – Juniors, Explorers and RAMs – are making a difference in both the lives of youth and department ranks across the state.
“If you get one kid from your Junior program to cross over, if you only have four kids and two of them join your department – those odds are fantastic,” Mattydale Fire Department Past Chief Brian Falise says. “You just have to know that you can’t leave any stone unturned.”
The role of youth programs is rapidly changing as departments look to not only grow, but bring new blood into aging membership as older members retire.
“Back in the day, the fire department was the center of our community as it was in many communities,” Falise says. “The husbands were members of the department, the wives were members of the auxiliary and the kids by default chased after their parents and spent a lot of time here.”
The Mattydale Junior program began as a way to keep the family unit together and involved with the fire service. But, that culture has naturally changed with dwindling membership in the adult ranks. The Junior program has become one tool to combat that.
“Junior programs have long proven to be a great recruitment tool for departments,” National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Chief of Communications Kimberly Quiros says. “It’s worth the time and investment because you’re basically investing in your department’s future.”
The NVFC introduced the National Junior Firefighter Program in 2007 to help departments start up their own programs, providing numerous resources on their website. More than 2,255 programs are currently registered in their database nationwide, suggesting an increase in popularity among a community-conscious demographic.
“People don’t realize how community-oriented this younger generation is. They want to help and they want to give back,” Quiros says. “They might just not know that the fire service opportunity is there.”
She recommends working with local schools as they often have a requirement for community service hours. Youth fire service is an exciting way for students to get those.
One resource for departments to consider is FASNY’s High School Recruitment Tool Kit.
“Most new kids in the program come because their friends have told them about all the things we do,” Falise says. “It’s not just sitting in the firehouse and thinking about what it will be like someday. We try to make it exciting.”
Mattydale Junior First Lieutenant Ryan Kneer, 16, thought he would be helping out here and there, putting stuff away around the firehouse and cleaning up.
“I didn’t know it would be this much into it,” Kneer says. “Pretty much the only thing we can’t do is go to active fire scenes. It’s fun and a good learning experience.
“You get to help people and just be part of your community,” he says.
Juniors train in every aspect of the fire service, from live fire training to hazmat and water rescue. FASNY’s Winter Games are an annual tradition for Mattydale’s Juniors as is the statewide Youth Day. The hands-on training and organization are essential, Falise says.
“If you’re not organized and giving the kids a reason to come to the firehouse, then you’re not going to have that buy-in,” he says. “They want to put their gear on and they want to do something.”
Long Island has one of the most unique programs in the country with the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association, a partnership of about 40 youth organizations in the area founded in 2005. Flagship events include the intensive Camp Fahrenheit 516, where more than 100 juniors spend several days training like their adult counterparts at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy.
What started with about 30 teens has grown to a membership of more than 1,000. Today, the only association of its kind in the U.S. is currently piloting an exchange program with Juniors in Europe.
“The Junior and Explorer program is the most under-marketed thing in the entire fire service,” says Jerry Presta, a longtime advisor in his department of East Norwich, Board Chairman for the Nassau County Juniors and Vice Chairman of the FASNY Youth in the Fire Service Committee.
He knows first-hand how difficult it can be to get a program started – he hears about manpower as a common issue – but he says the payoff makes it worth it both in terms of recruitment and the personal impact.
“It’s definitely a big part of my life,” says Alec Miller, 18, Junior Chief in the Mattydale FD. “It’s a lot more than just giving back to the community. It’s taught me a lot about responsibility.
“It’s like a second family here and it’s really taught me to be closer to my own family,” he says.
From the Top
“If you get three or four people, [a program is] really not a lot of work,” Presta says. “It might be hard to get it off the ground, get a structure going.”
“But, when my Juniors leave and go into the department … they want to pass that along,” he says.
That willingness to help makes the programs self-sustainable. And the impact is longterm. At one time, for example, every Chief officer in the Baldwinsville VFD was a former RAM.
“I think it’s important for fire departments throughout the State to take a look at the Junior/RAM program,” says Chief Tom Perkins, who started his Baldwinsville program in 1974. “It’s an untapped resource and every department in the State is looking for firefighters. When you bring them into the RAM program, you’ve got them.
“After they’ve been here for a little while, you can see the light come on that maybe there’s a little more going on here,” he says. “If I work hard and apply myself, advance, there will be something for me to look forward to.”