North Fork ‘hurts’ volunteer firefighters

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The Greenport Fire Department was huge.

Thirty or 40 years ago there was a waiting list to enter. But now they are in pain for the volunteers.

“When I arrived we were packed,” said Deputy Fire Chief Jim Kalin. “He has fallen since then. There has been a slow and steady decline in membership.

Fire chiefs and volunteers have listed a litany of reasons for the drop: The rising cost of housing has driven out young residents and attracted a richer population who tend to be older or only live in the city. part-time. The rising cost of living in general means that many people have to work multiple jobs or work longer hours, leaving little free time for their local fire department. Some volunteers are also struggling with burnout, exacerbated by increased membership requirements and stricter requirements from understaffed departments.

But anyway, it’s agreed: the East End needs more firefighters.

“Every department in North Fork hurts for the membership,” said Robert Corwin, a Greenport volunteer, who has seen the numbers decline steadily since joining the department as a junior in 1984.

The Greenport Fire Department has 125 members, just over half of its licensed strength. The shortage means fewer volunteers answer every call, often forcing the department to operate with minimal crew, according to Kalin. “We can do the job,” he said. “It’s just a small team.”

Robert Corwin has volunteered with the Greenport Fire Department since joining as a Junior Firefighter in 1984 (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

The department, like many others, has come to rely on mutual aid agreements – in which departments help neighboring jurisdictions – with other cities to fill the ranks on certain appeals. “We really depend on our neighbors now,” Mr. Corwin said.

At a recruiting event in late June, he described a house fire a few weeks earlier, where the chief of Greenport called East Marion and Southold for help “right now” because at eight o’clock in the afternoon. morning, “the workforce will be light”.

“We all work well together, but… when I first joined, we could have covered that,” Mr. Corwin said.

About 10 years ago, Riverhead also had a waiting list. The shortage isn’t “too bad” there, according to First Deputy Chief Joe Hartmann, but they’re down from around 20 members – from around 200 typically to around 180 or 182.

“No one is really knocking on the door to do it anymore,” Hartmann said, although they have recently had “younger guys”.

“During the day sometimes it hurts us,” he added. Instead of sending three trucks, they could send one or two.

At Orient, which has an active roster of around 38 members, Chief Richard Gillooly said his department had been “very lucky”. The shortage hasn’t really affected their ability to respond to emergencies, although the Stony Brook Teaching Hospital system, which runs the Greenport Hospital, sometimes helps fill gaps in emergency medical services.

An Orient Fire Department truck at a recruiting event at Mitchell Park in Greenport. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

COVID-19, however, posed a new challenge, with many older volunteers more exposed to the virus. During the pandemic, some volunteers with health problems chose to reduce their hours, even while others stepped up their efforts despite the risks.

“Our oldest member, who happens to be an EMT in his 80s, [would] come up on every appeal – against better judgment, but it was his choice, ”Mr. Gillooly said.

Southold chief Peggy Killian said her department – which has a ‘good amount’ of volunteers, but could always use more – has stopped hiring new volunteers during the pandemic, reopening the ranks to recruits only a few months ago.

“The availability to get medical exams from the firefighters and all other things was not open to us because everything was closed,” she said. “We haven’t welcomed any new people for a little over a year. “

Deputy Chief Denise Gluck at Wading River – which, with around 65 active members, also struggles with a volunteer shortage – said the volume of calls had “increased dramatically over the past few years … putting more load on work on available and responding people.

At Wading River, the department has seen a steady increase in calls over the years, from 1,089 in 2012 to 1,228 in 2020. At Riverhead, calls have slowly increased since 2008, but have remained relatively stable in recent years.

Some calls are just exhausting, say the volunteers. And if there aren’t enough people to share the workload, the active members will feel the pressure.

“You get four, five, six calls a day and the same couple of people answer; at the end of this day you’re tired, ”said David Nyce, another Greenport Fire Department volunteer and former Mayor of Greenport. “And that’s just why, it’s not what you do for the job, which is also going to be physically and / or mentally taxing.”

Tragic calls, like that fatal fire in Greenport, can wreak havoc on a volunteer. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Mr Nyce, who is self-employed, said he felt responsible for answering more calls, in part to make up for the shortage of volunteers. He has been in the ministry for six years now and has witnessed the pressure, especially on the chiefs, who answer every call.

“There’s a number of years you’ve been going crazy about this, and you answer any call you can,” he said. “It’s a lot to maintain. I think you see that in our members. You reach a certain point, and you can’t do it anymore.

Ms. Killian pointed out that with both spouses in many households working full time, many people just don’t have the time to volunteer.

“There is a major commitment – you have to do a firefighting school,” she said. “And if you want to become an EMT or a driver, that’s more time. Everything is time, time, time.

Cut-ch-ogue fire chief Amos Meringer – where although they have enough volunteers, there is always a “need” – said something similar.

“The work is demanding, the required education is long and the time commitment is important, especially the first year,” he said of the volunteer positions.

Mr Hartmann said “some guys burn out” in some of the ministry’s mandatory trainings. “The initial things you have to do is the hardest part,” he said. “The greatest thing is to go through the fire brigade school.”

It’s a more difficult time commitment for many people who have to work two jobs, he added.

The shortage is also felt in the west. In Wading River, which responded to the Baiting Hollow house fire, there is a serious need for new volunteers. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Mr Gillooly said that 25 years ago new hires only had to take a course that lasted a few hours. Now it can take months. New York State requires volunteer firefighters to meet existing residency requirements, active membership requirements set by each department, and successfully complete training.

“It seems to be the biggest obstacle right now,” he said. “And then we do a lot of training like this in-house and that too becomes difficult for people who have two jobs… We don’t need much, but it’s a requirement that you stay up to date. height of your skills. “

Mr Corwin has worked – along with his wife, who is a paramedic with the Greenport service – for over 30 years, while working full time.

“There are times when it’s like, you know what, I’m not going to do anything this week because I’m just smoked,” he said. “But we love what we do and we love helping the community, so we’re going back. But burnout is an important thing, especially for paramedics, because of the things they can sometimes see. “

When considering burnout in her own department, Gluck thought of emergency medical services, an area where many departments feel the shortage of volunteers most severely.

“Some people are paramedics for their careers, so it’s just an extra job for them,” she said. “But people with other careers can be exhausted when they make a lot of calls and spend a lot of time away from their families.”

Wading River Department doesn’t necessarily “see a lot of things,” but other departments have also expressed concern about the lack of EMS volunteers.

“I would say our need is definitely in paramedics, as a member of the rescue team,” Mr. Gillooly said of Orient. “But that’s basically everyone’s need here, you know?” Fires are rare these days and with cell phones… they are reported quickly.


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