The National Fire Protection Association reports that in 2011 there were 1,100,450 firefighters nationwide.
Nearly 70 percent of these were volunteers.
April is National Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment month, and this is a good time for Cattaraugus County residents to learn how they can be involved in volunteer fire departments.
Being a volunteer firefighter is no small commitment. Ed Fredrickson, volunteer firefighter and former Fire Chief of Ellicottville Fire Department, said that “volunteering is getting harder and harder,” as people juggle increasing commitments and responsibilities.
Ellicottville Fire Chief Kevin Morton described the process of becoming a volunteer firefighter. It begins with filling out an application, after which the applicant is expected to begin training at fire school, usually within one or two years. Fredrickson explained that this is to ensure commitment on the part of the applicant, since the fire company invests around $1,500 for every trainee.
Depending on the desired level of certification, training may take as little as a few months or as much as a few years, according to Christy Wiser of the Great Valley Volunteer Fire Company.
In addition, the Cattaraugus County of Emergency Services provides fire courses for free. Morton said volunteers are encouraged to take as many of these courses as they want.
Once they have completed the required training and have become firefighters, volunteers are on call. What does “on call” mean? Exactly what it sounds like.
Although volunteer fire-fighters work at other jobs, they are expected to respond to a call whenever possible. And since a call can come at any time, it’s a 24-hour commitment.
“(A volunteer firefighter) could be anywhere from a call at one in the afternoon to a call at two in the morning,” Morton said.
Responding to a fire call entails a variety of responsibilities. “You don’t have to run into a burning building” to help fight a fire, Fredrickson said. For each firefighter who does enter a burning building, a certain number of volunteers are needed to for support tasks, such as operating the water hose.
“It’s really up to the individual how much or how little they would like to advance in the company,” said Wiser.
The fire companies in both Ellicottville and Great Valley operate on a point system. Volunteers accumulate points based on how many calls they respond to.
The Ellicottville Fire Department currently has 54 volunteers, Morton said. However, that number is part of a downward trend.
“Numbers have slowly been decreasing through the years,” said Morton.
The Great Valley Volunteer Fire Company, which has about 35 active members, is experiencing a similar trend, according to Wiser. At the same time, she said they are fortunate for newer members who have “chosen to go above and beyond” by contributing with their swift water rescue and SCUBA training.
In order to be eligible to volunteer either in Ellicottville or Great Valley, one must reside within that fire district. This makes recruiting for Ellicottville especially challenging, since many people reside there only seasonally.
“We’re trying to find whoever we can,” Morton said.
There are also other ways to volunteer at a fire department.
“It’s a common misconception that volunteer fire (companies) are only looking for firefighters,” said Wiser, who is an EMT. In addition to firefighters, Wiser said, fire companies have need for EMTs and auxiliary members, as well people to maintain to buildings and equipment.
Wiser said that while Great Valley is not actively recruiting volunteers, they are “always looking to add new members.”
Ellicottville Fire Department will host an open house Saturday, April 27 from 1-4 p.m. at the fire hall. Morton said this will be a good opportunity for people to apply as volunteer firefighters.
As well as applications being available, the open house will feature fire truck rides, firefighting equipment and other interactive activities.