New Yorkers have a distaste for volunteerism. The Corporation for National Community Service reports that only 19 percent of all Empire State residents volunteer at least once a year. Think about that: Slightly less than 1 in 5 of us freely give of ourselves to our communities and country.
I live the outcomes of this aversion to service every day as president of the board of the local Boy Scout council. It’s like pulling teeth to get new blood to fill critical positions at the district and council level which hinders our goals for advancing our program.
But, as frustrating as that may be, I’m only into changing lives. Other volunteer organizations that actually save lives are in far direr straits.
If you’d like to get a feel for this spend a few days listening to a police scanner or one of the online services that stream the transmissions (such as Niagara County Fire Wire). You will hear countless calls to local fire and ambulance crews that take far too long to be responded to or aren’t answered at all. Sometimes, a 911 call might not have crews on site for 30 to 45 minutes – or more – and then, upon arrival, they might find they need back-up from a neighboring district. All of that lost time can equal lost lives or lost property.
You can’t blame firefighters and emergency medical technicians for that. They can only do so much. There’s too much work put on too few people.
Across the country, emergency calls have doubled in the past 20 years. But, since 1990, the ranks of volunteer firefighters have declined by 15 percent nationally. That loss is even greater here in Western New York --- volunteer departments have seen their rosters shrink by 24 percent over that same period. When you consider that nearly 80 percent of New York communities rely on fully volunteer squads, you can’t help but worry about what will become of you and your family if, God forbid, one day you need assistance.
New York fire companies have tried everything under the sun to grow their numbers if not just hold the line. They’ve had numerous open houses in recent years. They’ve opened more Explorer posts. They’ve offered tuition reimbursement for community colleges. The state grants an income tax credit to volunteers.
Despite all of that, the recruitment and retention woes continue.
So, what’s left?
Since younger generations won’t help their community for free, there’s a really good chance they will if their income can grow by doing so. Fire and EMS crews might have to become partially-paid or a volunteer/paid hybrid to make it worth someone’s while.
The full-time route is how it’s been done in cities, but they are afforded a population and tax base that can support firefighters being staged at halls. Rural communities and villages don’t have either, so full-time squads are out of the question unless you’d like to bankrupt homeowners who already pay some of the most extravagant property taxes in the nation. Firefighting and lifesaving, in most cases, would have to be considered part-time, supplemental income in rural locales.
The model of dispatching that currently exists (the call goes out and people leave home and work to respond) would still hold true, but firefighters would be paid for showing up. You can see a call pay system in use in places like Fairfield County, South Carolina, where volunteers are paid a total of $25 for working a structure fire. Or, look north where the Central Kootenay District in British Columbia has a more lucrative plan that pays volunteers $15 an hour for every call they work or training exercise they take part in.
We’ve already seeing similar methods being adopted throughout New York.
Two years ago, Old Forge found it necessary to pay a salary to some on an otherwise volunteer squad in order to keep EMTs in the area and ensure that emergency calls could be quickly addressed in the central Adirondacks. That decision came after a $25/hour rate to all volunteers was pondered and shelved.
Even more recently, just 5 weeks ago, the Wellsville Volunteer Ambulance Corps announced they had found it necessary to pay paramedics or critical care technicians to sit at the ambulance bay 24 hours a day on weekdays at a rate of $18/hour.
Making such systems work will require a higher tax levy or special district tax. All towns already pay fire companies; it takes a lot of money to run them, even when no one is paid a wage. My town, for example, pays a total of $461,000 to 5 volunteer fire companies. Under a pay system, could towns like Royalton see their annual investments in fire contracts double?
Taxpayers won’t want to hear that but that’s the reality of the world we’re living in. Pay might be counterintuitive to the whole concept of volunteerism, but desperate times call for desperate measures. If we don’t do something people can die, houses can burn down, wildfires can rage out of control, and understaffed fire crews will continue to be put in harm’s way.
When we’re talking about fire and EMS not having enough people we’re talking about a real public safety crisis. That crisis is here, now…and it’s getting worse.
From the 09 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News