Saranac Lake Fire Department


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Adirondack Daily Enterprise Article "Biggest crisis we're facing right now"
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By SLVFD News Room
March 8, 2024

If you are interested in serving with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, please see the information added on the bottom below the Enterprise article.

The following is a copy of an article posted in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, dated today 3/8/2024 written by Aaron Marbone-Staff Writer.

‘Biggest crisis we’re facing right now’


As volunteer fire departments see decline in membership, firefighters worry about future of departments.
SARANAC LAKE — All of the fire departments around the Tri-Lakes are volunteer-based. At the sound of a smoke alarm, the sight of flames or the smell of gas, a cadre of volunteers drop what they are doing and respond.

Over the last few years, each department has seen a trend of fewer people signing up to do this work, and fire chiefs worry that residents could be forced to foot the bill if this trend continues. Most departments already have a few paid firetruck drivers.

At a Feb. 12 Saranac Lake village board meeting about a proposed new emergency services building, Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brendan Keough made an offhand comment about the lack of volunteer firefighters in his department.

“If something doesn’t change very soon in the volunteerism … Saranac Lake is going to need a fully-paid fire department,” he said.

Having a paid department rather than a volunteer one means taxpayers would carry the financial load of a paid firefighting force.

Keough said this isn’t an immediate concern, but they’re heading in that direction if something doesn’t change.

“It’s the biggest crisis we’re facing right now,” Keough said.

Volunteer fire departments around the region are facing this same problem. They have fewer members than ever because of several factors, including an increase in training requirements and a decrease in free time due to work and family responsibilities.

This is also a statewide and national problem. A 2023 study from the Firefighters Association of the State of New York found there’s been a 32% decrease in volunteer firefighters in New York since 1990, from 110,000 to under 80,000.

Keough said he doesn’t have a specific number of members that would lead to an all-paid department in mind, and said he doesn’t want to think about it. The National Fire Protection Association has standards for membership requirements and he said locally, it’s based on staffing to do the job. Keough said SLVFD is one of the busier departments in the North Country with around 480 calls last year.

SLVFD has five paid drivers and 35 volunteer members, but Keough said the number of firefighters qualified to go inside burning buildings is much smaller.

Around half of the members are active in the department. Like many of the other departments, a portion of those volunteers are aging out of the physical work, retiring after decades with the department.

Keough said he’s been losing more members than gaining members.

Scary

The Firefighters Association of the State of New York’s 2023 study found that 94.5% of New York fire departments are volunteer-based. These departments save taxpayers approximately $4 billion each year, according to FASNY.

If these volunteer departments had to go to all paid departments, the study found it would increase average local property taxes by 28.4%.

“It’s an extremely expensive proposition,” Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Woodruff said.

Woodruff is confident volunteer departments will stick around because they are needed. He said no local community has a large enough tax base, meaning a large enough pool of taxpayers, to support a paid department — at least individually. If paid departments are the only way to keep fire protection services some day, they would have to consolidate departments.

Keough said the volunteer department impact on taxpayers is understated and overlooked. Volunteer firefighters save taxpayers a lot of money each year. The concept of taxpayers picking up that load is scary, he said.

“Scary,” was the word most department chiefs used to describe going to a paid department.

“That’s kind of a scary thing,” Tupper Lake Chief Royce Cole said. “Obviously, nobody wants taxes to raise.”

It would be a huge burden on villages, he said.

Cole said the specter of a paid department is not a concern in Tupper Lake.

“That hasn’t even been a discussion,” he said.

But that lingering question of “what if nobody shows up?” sticks in his mind.

“There’s a proud history of volunteer firefighters going all the way back,” Keough said.

Losing that heritage and history is scary, too, he added.

“The firehouse isn’t the building, it’s not the shiny red trucks. It’s not even the chief. It’s the volunteers that are the lifeblood of the fire department,” Keough said.

Without them, they don’t have anything, he said.

Other local departments

Cole said when he joined the department in 1998, there was a couple-of-years-long waiting list to get into the department, which had 75 members at the time. The age to join was also 21, because there was alcohol at the station.

Eventually, the alcohol was removed and the village dropped the minimum volunteer age to 18, but it also dropped the maximum number of members to 60 because it couldn’t afford to keep 75 sets of turnout gear.

Over the years, Cole said the number of people volunteering with the department has diminished “drastically.” Currently, he said TLVFD has around 45 members, including those at the substation in Santa Clara.

Cole said 90% of the calls they go to have adequate numbers. But for those major calls — active structure fires or motor vehicle crashes — they’re sending out more alarms or relying on mutual aid from other departments to do the job properly.

Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department has seven paid drivers and 33 members. St. Louis said they have a maximum allowance of 60 members, so they have around half of their potential.

“We’re not in dire straights where we’re having trouble by any means,” LPVFD Chief Michael St. Louis said. “We’re surviving, but we could always use more members.”

“It’s hard today to recruit people,” he said at an August school board meeting. “We try, we try, we try.”

St. Louis said volunteer firefighting is often generational, with firefighting families signing up with each new generation.

Paul Smiths-Gabriels Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tom Tucker said he has one of the few very fortunate departments. The department gets around half of its members from Paul Smith’s College, which offers a disaster management program.

Tucker said they have 24 student members and 26 full-time members. That makes things a bit harder in the summer and winter breaks, when the college isn’t in session, but he said they have an active full-time member force and enough students stay in the area that it doesn’t cause too much alarm.

Woodruff said he’s in the same boat as everyone.

Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department has a total of 35 members on its roster and 15 to 18 active members, but most active members are only active at night. During the day, when folks are at work, it’s hard to get enough people to respond, he said.

His firefighters lean on mutual aid from other departments more during the day. SLVFD does automatic mutual aid for BVFD during the day on weekdays.

“Thank God for mutual aid,” St. Louis said.

What’s caused the decline?

Keough said answering what’s caused the decline is literally the “million dollar question.” For a lot of people, he said the problem is work. It’s gotten more difficult for people to leave their places of employment to go fight fires.

In the old days, Keough said the whistle would blow and they would leave work “no questions asked.” But today, people don’t get that allowance. They have to work.

“You can’t necessarily blame the employers. It’s just gotten more difficult,” Keough said. “Back in the old days, everybody just let everybody leave their job.”

There is a New York law mandating that employers allow employees who are volunteer firefighters to respond to emergencies, but this only applies to declared state or local emergencies. Keough said many of his members have state jobs and the state is usually pretty good about letting people leave for calls.

John Deere recently made news in the firefighting world for allowing its employees who are volunteer firefighters to leave work or come in late if they are responding to a call, courtesy of funding through its Deere Foundation. Firefighting news outlets reported on this as an anomaly.

In the past, Woodruff said a family could live off of one parent working. Now, both parents have to work. Keough said there’s also an increase in the number of single parents, which he said has led to some people leaving. They can’t leave their children home alone, he said.

Woodruff said a lot of good-intentioned people want to volunteer, but they can’t put in the hours.

This comes as Saranac Lake experienced a 9.6% population decline from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Census, and as the region contends with an affordable housing crisis.

The state also requires more training for volunteer firefighters than it used to — close to the same training paid fire departments are required to do, Cole said.

“It’s a huge commitment,” he said.

The state’s initial training requirements for the first few years are time consuming — between basic firefighter operations and interior firefighter operations, new recruits spend around 143 hours in training. And with some of that training not being offered consistently locally, new firefighters often have to drive to Westville, an hour away from Saranac Lake.

This makes it hard for younger people with families and careers to get involved, Keough said.

Then, after they’re trained, firefighters are on call 24/7.

Cole has been grocery shopping with his wife when a call came out and he’s had to leave her in the store to respond. She calls her mother to come pick her up. He’s left family events to attend to fires.

“When that alarm goes off, somebody’s calling for help. You feel committed to doing that,” Cole said. “When they call 911, people aren’t calling you when things are going right. They’re looking for help.”

Fire department duties have also increased. Keough said they are “jacks of all trades,” doing water rescues, storm response, vehicle crashes, chemical spills, backcountry rescues and airplane crashes. Keough said they’ve literally responded to calls about a cat in a tree.

Pitches and solutions

There’s a famous saying about “odd hours, no pay, cool trucks and a free t-shirt” Cole said is part of the volunteer fire department.

“I wish I had a better sales pitch,” Woodruff said.

For many people who join, Keough said giving back to the community and protecting lives is the draw. For him, it was working in the family business of a funeral home, where he always met with people at the end of tragedies that pushed him to join 35 years ago. He said he wanted to make a difference and give back to the community.

“At the end of the day, you are helping your community and you are helping the people in it, whether you know them or not,” Cole said. “If things work out for the best, it’s a great feeling knowing you were able to help somebody in their time of need. … It’s definitely satisfying, knowing that you can make a difference in your community.”

Even little things, like teaching kids about fire prevention at schools, is rewarding, he said.

The Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake departments both have a junior program starting at age 16, which allows high school-age kids to join, get a taste of firefighting and continue as a full-fledged member when they turn 18.

The village of Lake Placid; towns of North Elba, Wilmington and Keene; and the Keene and Lake Placid school districts have each passed laws offering tax breaks for volunteer firefighters or ambulance workers within the past year. Other districts and municipalities around the area also offer these.

St. Louis said he hopes these efforts help encourage membership.

Keough said SLVFD members get these tax breaks, and said while they are a draw, they are not really high enough to be the reason someone joins.

He is kicking around the idea of getting the state to create a student loan forgiveness program for volunteer firefighters and their children.

Earlier this week, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that New York is starting its first program providing training stipends for volunteer firefighters. This includes $10 million planned in the upcoming state budget to offset the costs, which have traditionally been borne by volunteer members.

Stipends for first-time course completions of basic exterior firefighting operations can be for $750, interior firefighting operations for $1,250 and fire officer for $1,000.

“I would be a millionaire with all the courses I took over 45 years,” St. Louis said.

Keough said if SLVFD does indeed move to the former high school on 33 Petrova Ave., the gym there will be a new training space, hopefully keeping people from needing to travel far as often to get the skills they need.

He also envisions it as a community resource center where kids can come and play, and get exposure to firefighters and EMTs, potentially inspiring a new generation of firefighters. It will also work as a disaster shelter, he asked.

“The weather is changing,” Keough said.

Most departments have application forms online or at the firehalls.

“Our doors are always open,” Cole said.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Serving with the SLVFD can be a very rewarding experience and a way to deeply serve your community. It is a great opportunity for the right person.

What does it take to join the SLVFD?

Members who submit an application and pass a background check may be given the opportunity to enter into a 6 month probationary period where they will be expected to attend meetings, trainings and actual emergencies and act within the limits of their training. Upon completion of that 6 month probationary period the probationary member may be granted full membership with the SLVFD pending a vote of the active members.

Active Membership in the SLVFD minimum requirements include:

* Completion of NYS Basic Exterior Firefighting Operations Training "BEFO". Members will be encouraged to continue on to "NYS Interior Firefighter Operations" if the member so desires to become a full interior firefighter.

* Attend monthly fire schools, usually scheduled on the 4th Thursday evening of each month. Other training opportunities exist, these are the minimum standard.

* Attend regular department meetings, scheduled on the 1st Thursday evening of each month.

* Maintain a fire quota, which is currently set at a minimum of 4 fire calls per month, 12 fire calls per quarter. 4 calls per month is a minimum to remain in good standing, in reality you will respond to more than 4.

* Remain active in work details, parades, and public events.

We fully understand the commitment we are asking, but we can assure you, membership in the SLVFD is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have, not only do you deeply serve your community, but you become part of a family with strong camaraderie and belong to a service with an awesome tradition.

To apply you can stop by the firehouse and pick up an application, call (518) 891-2333, write to info@saranaclakefire.com or speak with any SLVFD member.


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Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department
100 Broadway
PO Box 509
Saranac Lake NY 12983


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