DELHI _ Delaware County Emergency Services Coordinator Rich Bell is using every method he can come up with to recruit and retain fire and emergency services volunteers.

"Over the past few years, the number of 911 calls has constantly increased while the number of volunteers has been decreasing," Bell said Thursday.

Bell said every fire department in Delaware County needs to increase the number of members in fire and emergency services departments, and leadership is a crucial component of retaining members.

In an new effort to curtail the drain of volunteers, on Saturday, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County, in conjunction with Delaware County Emergency Services, is holding a leadership conference.

The session will be led by Kimberly Alyn of Fire Presentations from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at SUNY Delhi's Evenden Tower.

"There were about 17,000 911 calls last year,'' he continued, ``and approximately 5,000 were emergency medical services calls and 3,000 were fire calls."

"Everybody is in dire straits for active volunteers," Bell said. "The last thing we need to do is lose people because of internal conflicts and people losing motivation and interest."

Bell said there are 30 fire departments and 27 emergency quads in Delaware County and he would like to see at least two or three representatives from every department, but the conference is also open to departments from surrounding counties.

"I heard Kimberly Alyn speak at a state fire conference and I was really impressed," Bell said. "We have never addressed the leadership component and I realized how important it is."

Pam Hildebrandt, Delaware Cooperative Extension Rural Healthcare Alliance coordinator, said that in the last five years, emergency squads in Delaware County have lost 19.6 percent of their members and another third of the EMTs have indicated they would more than likely be leaving in less than four years.

"This is not a Delaware County specific issue," Hildebrandt said. "It is facing rural America across the board and it's getting worse. If you call 911 and there is no one to crew up, what is the alternative? No one wants to see the dollar signs connected with that answer."

Hildebrandt said leadership conflicts are one of the factors that contribute to people contemplating leaving volunteer services.

"When you have volunteers reporting to volunteer leaders, it's kind of like herding cats," Hildebrandt said. "They can say see ya' at any time. Helping them function as teams and squads is something we can change locally."

Hildebrandt said the primary reason people are not volunteering for fire and emergency services is time.

``The bar continues to be raised in regard to time spent in training," Hildebrandt said. "It is an enormous commitment for an unpaid job where you get up in the middle of the night to go to a gruesome scene."

Bell said volunteering for a local fire department has changed radically in the last 20 to 30 years.

"Fire departments used to be a bit of a social club but nowadays the departments are so busy and there is so much training it's more like a second job," Bell said.

Entry-level firefighters have to complete 91 hours of training before they can respond to calls and basic emergency medical technicians must complete 116.5 hours before they can man the ambulance.

Bell said it requires 900 to 1,000 hours to qualify as a paramedic and those are college-run courses.

"In addition to asking people to volunteer, we are also asking them to pay tuition and travel to Cobleskill or Binghamton to qualify as paramedics," Bell said. "Very few of those people are strictly volunteers. They are almost all paid providers somewhere."

Hilderbrant said volunteers are also taking time away from work. She said in the past employers allowed the workers to leave to respond to fires and emergencies without docking their pay, but now more and more employers are not allowing workers to leave.

"About two thirds of EMTs are using vacation time or are not paid," Hildebrant said.

Another facet of lost time is time away from family.

"Now that we have two income households with mom and dad both working, there is no one there to watch the kids if a fire or emergency call comes in and the other parent isn't home," Hildebrant said.

Delaware County's shift away from agriculture has also affected volunteerism. Hildebrant said it was much easier to leave the farm than it is to leave a job and many people have gone much further away from home to find those jobs.

Bob Brown, Walton Fire Department assistant chief, said that when he volunteered for the Walton Fire Department 30 years ago, he was on a waiting list for a year waiting for an opening, but things have changed radically since then.

"I guess it's just the way the world is," Brown said Thursday.

He said that 30 years ago there were about 120 active firefighters in the Walton department but now there are about 75 to 85 on the active rolls of the fire and EMS combined.

Brown said he and his younger brother joined the fire department because their father was a fireman.

"It was just one of those things you did," Brown said. "I sleep good at night knowing I can help somebody. It just makes me feel good."

Brown said he has noticed a huge increase in calls since the 911 system was instituted.

"Calls during bad weather for cars off the road have skyrocketed," Brown said. "Now that people have cell phones they see a car off the road, call 911 and then drive on, not even knowing if the car was really in trouble."

Brown said there has been such a big increase in mandatory training that people have really got to be dedicated.

Brown also mentioned that squads are losing members through attrition as people grow older. He said that 12 years ago, the average age of Walton members was 42 and that number has continued to increase.

Brown said he hopes the leadership conference will help the departments function more smoothly.

``I'm hoping it's going to give us some good insight on how to be leaders," Brown said. "We train all the time on tactics, but we need to learn to work together. I always said I don't expect any one to do everything, but I do expected everyone to do something."

For more information, call 746-9600.

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Patricia Breakey can be reached at 746-2894 or at stardelhi@stny.rr.com.

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