A controlled burn during the Latham Fire Department Open House on Saturday, April, 27. Jim Franco/Spotlight News
COLONIE — It’s a pretty hard sell: A substantial time commitment, lots of training, no real financial compensation … and you are expected to run into burning buildings.
But, said Latham Fire Department President Richard Barlette, the rewards of being a volunteer firefighter are unquantifiable.
“You serve the community and a lot of camaraderie, we do a lot of things together, and it really is a great experience,” said Barlette, who has been involved with the Latham Fire Department for 48 years. “I think we are able to help a lot of people. We see a lot of tragedy, but it is rewarding. Serving the community, I think, is the important thing and I think that’s how all the volunteers look at it. The amount of gratification, when you are dealing with suffering and misery other people have, if you can help them it really is something special.”
The open house at the Latham Fire Department held on Saturday, April 27, was part of a statewide effort, called RecruitNY, to introduce people to what the fire departments do and maybe persuade them to sign up as a volunteer. Something that is getting harder and harder to do with more families having a husband and wife working and children with more and more activities to keep parents busy when they are not working.
More than 600 departments participated in the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s RecruitNY over the weekend of April 27 and 28. Since the annual event kicked off in 2011, more than 25,000 recruits have signed up to become volunteers.
When Barlette joined the Latham Fire Department in 1971, it handled maybe 200-220 calls a year. Today, the two stations, one on Old Loudon Road and one on Route 2, handles about 1,000 fire calls a year and 600 EMS runs. They cover everything from structure and car fires, to automobile accidents, to any type of medical emergency.
The irony is, back when there were fewer calls, there were more volunteers than today. Barlette said there are about 40 active volunteers at Latham, but can remember not long ago when there were more than 60.
Because of the large volume of calls, which is getting nothing but larger as the town grows and becomes busier in every sense of the word, six paid firefighters are on staff at the Latham Fire Department and cover calls from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. But, without volunteers to shore up the ranks and to cover calls when the paid members are off the clock, one of two things would certainly happen: the level service would suffer at a time when residents need it most or taxes would skyrocket.
“We need the paid guys because people are not available because of work. In the old days, factories and other employers would allow people to get out of work and respond to calls but not so much anymore,” Barlette said. “It is very important to have full staffing and volunteers make that possible. It is expensive to put on paid firefighters. If the town went fully paid it would easily cost millions.”
Shaker Road and Verdoy have some paid firefighters as well, but the large majority of firefighters in Colonie’s 12 departments are volunteers.
“If people have time and the interest in becoming a firefighter or an EMT or an EMS, we are looking for you,” Barlette said.
Jordan George said he had been thinking about volunteering for about five years and saw on the news that RecruitNY was happening so he went down to Latham Fire Department on Saturday to check it out and ended up signing up.
“It is a way to give back and to help others,” said the 30-year-old Shaker High graduate, one of two who signed up at the open house. “I am looking forward to being part of a team and learning the procedures and taking care of the issues.”
Tom Sonnekalb, who was at the open house, said he is considering volunteering with Latham when he retires in a year.
“I lived here all my life. I graduated from South Colonie in ’72 and at the end of this year I’m retiring and I want to see if I can help out here,” he said. “I never had time with work, I used to travel a lot, but this fire house is right around the corner from my house and I know there is a need.”
The open house also served as a way for the community to come check out the Fire Department and its equipment, to learn about fire safety and what to do in the event of an emergency and to see demonstrations of the fire fighters at work.
Earlier this month, the National Fire Protection Association released a report, based on a survey of fire departments, that found there were an estimated 682,600 volunteer firefighters in the U.S. In 2016 there were 729,000 and in 2015 there were 814,850.
In all, the number of volunteers has declined by about 12 percent since 1983, the first year NFPA began keeping track, while the number of calls has tripled.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, there are an estimated 1.1 million firefighters across the country and 65 percent of those are volunteers. Of the 29,819 fire departments in the country, 19,313 are all volunteer, 5,045 are mostly volunteer, 2,316 are mostly career and 2,785 are all career.
Barlette was quick to point out his department, like departments across the country, also welcome female firefighters. According to NFPA, in 2017, 7 percent, of 77,900 firefighters across the country were female and of the total number of volunteers, 9 percent, or 64,500, were female.
In years past, the volunteer fire house was known as much for being a clubhouse where members could watch football games and drink a never ending keg as it was for fighting fires. That too has changed with the times.
To become a volunteer now, the minimum amount of training is a 110-hour NFPA certified course. There are also background checks and some departments require a potential recruit to pass a physical agility test. From the basic firefighter certification, it is up to the volunteer to take on as much training as he or she wants and the possibilities are near endless.
The time dedicated by volunteers save localities across the country an estimated $46.9 billion per year, according to the NFPA.