Saranac Lake Fire Department


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NCPR Article "North Country fire departments hit hard by declining volunteerism"
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By SLVFD News Room
March 29, 2024

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

The following is a copy of an article posted by North Country Public Radio, dated 3/28/2024 written by Amy Feiereisel. You may scroll to the bottom of this page to find a link to the original article posted by NCPR which includes an audio reading of the article.

"North Country fire departments hit hard by declining volunteerism"

The vast majority of the North Country and New York state’s fire departments are staffed by volunteers and have been for over a century.

But the region’s population is aging, and volunteerism across the US is on the decline. Fire chiefs say they’re struggling to recruit new members, and their ranks are much smaller than they were even a decade ago.

*Recruitment a struggle in North Country communities*

Brendan Keough has acted as Saranac Lake’s fire chief for 14 years now. He and his family members have a long history as a volunteer firefighters.

"My great grandfather was a member of the fire department here in Saranac Lake. My father was a member of the fire department," said Keough.

He said recruitment has been the single hardest part of the position. "And once you do get members to join, I find that it's harder and harder to retain those numbers for, you know, more than five years," said Keough.

Like the majority of North Country communities, Saranac Lake’s population is aging, and the bulk of its firefighters are in their fifties and sixties. Keough says as those firefighters "age out" the fire department is not "replenishing those firefighters that are aging out."

*Less people volunteering, yet a higher need*

Keough said when he joined the department in the late 1980s as a 25-year-old, there were about 65 members in the volunteer department. Now they’ve got 35.

But in reality, it’s even less than that, says Keough. "Because you have to think about, you know, how many are actually active members? And of those active members, how many of them are actually certified as interior firefighters?"

He said it's actually a very limited number that are prepared to go into burning buildings or do search and rescues.

Keough says there are lots of factors that play into smaller departments. "Family dynamics have changed. Work dynamics have changed. You know, COVID certainly had a factor," said Keough.

But the trouble for Saranac Lake and the other hundreds of volunteer fire departments in New York is that need hasn’t declined at the same rate.

The state says that 75% of volunteer fire departments report a decrease in their number of volunteers, while also reporting a marked increase in the number of calls for help they receive.

That presents a pretty obvious problem.

*Switching to a paid model*

Keough says he and other senior members of Saranac Lake's department "are of the same mindset that, you know, if something doesn't change and we're not able to recruit the next generation of firefighters, there will come a tipping point."

That tipping point would be having to switch to "either a combination paid volunteer department (with volunteers and paid members) or a fully paid fire department."

Keough says if Saranac Lake had to pay for firefighting services, it would increase local taxes substantially.

According to a 2023 financial impact study from the Firefighter’s Association of New York, volunteer fire departments save state taxpayers more than $3 billion dollars each year.

But fewer people are volunteering these days. Across the US, Rates of volunteerism have been on the decline since 2010.

But Keough says he’s an optimist. He's hoping this moment in time is a low point in volunteerism in America. "Yeah, I have to believe the pendulum, at some point, has to swing up," said Keough.

*Inventivizing participation in departments*

Keough also said he thinks there are ways to incentivize participation. "I would love to see like a student loan forgiveness program," said Keough. "I think that could really make a difference."

Keough says sometimes its hard for folks to volunteer because they have so many financial commitments. Forgiving loans could make it worth it.

That state is thinking along similar but less ambitious lines. On March 3, New York launched it’s very first training stipend program. It pays volunteer firefighters between $750 and $1250 dollars for completing certain trainings necessary to serve as a firefighter.

Keough said that he supports any effort to help recruit new members. "I mean, I think anything like that will be a tremendous help. Any, any effort to try and recruit younger members." Whether or not a small stipend would be enough, Keough said "I don't know."

Keough said there truly are many benefits to volunteering; friendship, community, the ability to be of service.

And he also believes there are lots of people out in his own community of Saranac Lake that would love serving as a firefighter if they gave it a try.

He said it’s a chance to have a positive impact on other people’s lives, and not just by fighting fires. "It could be going to senior citizens home, whose smoke detectors beeping. Sometimes it's the little things that all the volunteer firefighters do in the community consistently throughout the year that really actually are the most rewarding," said Keough.

Keough actually retired as Saranac Lake’s Fire Chief earlier in March, after fourteen years leading it. But he’s not leaving the department and will continue to serve as the dive captain. He hopes to see his department - and others across the region - grow in the coming years.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________
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.

Hyperlinks: Link to original NCPR article "Includes Audio"
 

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


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