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May 2, 2014

In Our Opinion: Paid services needed for fire, EMS

The Daily Star

---- — What if you held an open house and nobody came? 

Just ask Mark Hoag of the Schenevus Volunteer Fire Department. 

He described his department’s recent recruitment event as “uneventful.” Exactly no one stopped by the department to even inquire about volunteering. 

Mount Vision Fire Chief Jim Cox didn’t do much better. He had one woman show up to volunteer. And Cox wasn’t surprised at the low turnout.  

“We really don’t expect a lot of people will show up,” Cox told The Daily Star, but “we made brownies just in case.”

The recent open houses at local fire stations were part of a statewide effort coordinated through the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. 

The annual open houses, branded as Recruit NY, are a major component of the state association’s drive to reach potential volunteers, who are sorely needed. The FASNY website suggests using social media as well as traditional outlets such as radio (and, yes, newspapers) to promote open-house events at participating fire stations, and having a variety of activities during the events to engage people’s interest. 

But all the fresh-baked brownies in the world won’t help if no one shows up. 

These events may not be the best route to recruiting new members — especially given the lackluster turnout reported from this year’s round. 

Even with a more aggressive recruitment strategy, though, volunteer departments face other challenges that may prove insurmountable for some. In days gone by, when training requirements were less time-consuming, it was easier to keep people involved as volunteers. But today’s volunteers face hundreds of hours of training and certification — and it’s not a one-shot deal, either. 

The truth is, we may not be able to sustain the services that we rely on by using volunteers alone. Increasingly, we look to fire departments to provide emergency services when people’s health is at risk — not just their property. And it is the emergency medical volunteers who require the highest level of training — between 150 and 160 hours per person.  

It may be time for us to examine if money can be found to recruit, not just volunteers, but paid emergency workers. 

In 2007, we wrote, “Countywide fly-car services may lie on the horizon for many rural counties, as paid services find costs rising and profits declining. Geography indicates that counties should work together on ambulance services to provide the most efficient service, but until the state gets behind the idea, it will not be easy.”

As volunteers continue to dwindle, we encourage local counties to follow Schoharie County’s lead and look to create a countywide ambulance service, or a system of fly cars — whether the state is behind the idea or not. 

Our lives may depend on it.