The public will have a chance to peek into the life of a volunteer firefighter next weekend during the Recruit New York open house event held at participating fire halls throughout the state.
About a dozen of the 29 volunteer fire companies located throughout Niagara County will participate either Saturday or Sunday, or both days.
“We’ll show them what we do,” said Gary Snyder, chief of Miller Hose Fire Company in Newfane. “We’ll tell people what training they have to have and try and pique their interest in joining the fire company. We’ll have our equipment out for everyone to see, and we’ll have applications available. And we’ll serve hot dogs.”
Snyder said last year’s open house garnered three new members for his 55-member company, which answers an average of 800 calls per year.
Miller Hose, at 6161 McKee Road, Newfane, will open its doors to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
What drew Snyder – who has been a member for 24 years – to this form of volunteerism?
“I like helping the community and making sure everyone’s safe,” he said.
He said that his father served as chief at one time and that his son is a member of the company’s Junior Firefighters program, which starts at age 13. Once you graduate from high school, you are eligible to become a full member at Miller Hose. These rules differ among volunteer companies, with some requiring that members be 21.
Bruce Mack, a 26-year volunteer, is chief of Frontier Volunteer Fire Company of Wheatfield, one of five such companies in the town.
Volunteering in the local fire company is a tradition in the Mack family.
“My grandfather, Harvey Sr., was one of the founding members, and my father, Harvey Jr., is still active,” he said. “And my son, Brandon, 18, is now a member.”
Mack added: “There’s a sense of accomplishment and pride when you help someone who is at their absolute worst moment, and they are looking to you to fix it. Maybe their spouse isn’t breathing, or their child isn’t breathing. A lot of what you do is just automatic – it just kicks in. Sometimes you can help, and you are successful, and sometimes you aren’t.”
“With a fire, sometimes you can get there and save a lot of what they own, and sometimes the fire’s been going for a while by the time you get there, and you can’t,” he said. “But when someone takes the time to come back to the hall to say thank you – well, we do what we do because we like to do it.”
Frontier will hold its open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at its station, 2176 Liberty Drive, Wheatfield.
Ed Tase, a member of Frontier for 37 years, said the open house will give the public an opportunity “to view our facilities, our truck garage, training education building, the fire training tower, and see fire extinguisher demonstrations and preventive education demonstrations, for example, throughout the day. We’ll have applications available and try and increase our number of recruits.”
He said stricter federal and state mandates for increased training hours have made recruiting more challenging.
“Now we have many two-income households and split families, and if people want to make a commitment to fight fires, they have to get the training, and it’s really tough for some,” he said. “I started as a junior firefighter at 14. My father was the assistant chief, and my mother was president of the auxiliary. I became a full-fledged member at 18, took the class, and I was ready with just 12 hours of training.”
Mack said Frontier now requires a minimum of 12 drills per year, and members take the Firefighter One program, which is 91 hours of training. Members also must respond to at least 10 percent of the company’s annual calls. The minimum age for an emergency medical technician is also 18, but there is more training. The company, with an enrollment of 62 members, including around 35 who are active, averages about 350 calls per year. The majority of these calls are for medical services.
With the increase in state and federal regulations, the need for record-keeping also has dramatically risen, which Mack said has created new opportunities for people interested in joining the company who might not want to answer fire or medical calls.
“Maybe someone’s interested in joining but doesn’t want to fight fires,” he said. “We also need people with different skill sets, like accounting, who could take care of the books, or someone to do secretarial, administrative assistant work. That also helps free up others to fight fires.”
And Mack pointed out that volunteer firefighters also respond to everything from answering security alarm calls to pumping out flooded basements to providing mutual aid during natural disasters like Super Storm Sandy or Hurricane Irene.
“There are a lot of opportunities for service in a volunteer fire company,” he said.
As an added incentive, a relatively new program instituted through the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York reimburses members of volunteer fire companies for tuition at their local community colleges. They must remain members while they go to school and make a four-year commitment to the company following graduation.
Matt Manning, 18, of Niagara Falls, a freshman at Niagara County Community College, enrolled in the volunteer firefighter tuition reimbursement program.
He joined Frontier last year as a high school senior in the Junior Firefighter program and is the first in his family to join a local fire company.
“I want to be a lifetime member,” he said. “I love the people at the fire company, and I want to give back to the community that has done so much for me.”
He balances college, a part-time job and a commitment to the fire company.
“It’s tight, but I can manage,” he said.
He urges others, “Go to the open house. Try some stuff out, and if you like it, sign up. They will help you and train you to get where you want to be. That’s what I did.”
Mack is hopeful events like the weekend open houses will continue to help attract new members.
“Some people have come to the open house and liked it and stayed,” he said. “It started as part of National Volunteer Week a few years ago. It’s been a great program and raised a lot of awareness.”