If you live outside the City of Batavia in Genesee County, the ability of volunteer fire companies to get enough able-bodied manpower to your house in a timely manner if it ever caught on fire is reaching a crisis stage, Tim Yaeger, emergency management coordinator, told members of the County Legislature today.
"We're out of time," Yaeger said. "If anybody says that we've got time, we don't. We're out of time."
Volunteer fire companies throughout the county are running on a bare minimum of staffing. Many volunteers are past the age of retirement. And chiefs are getting burned out because there are few young firefighters with the training and experience to replace them.
Yaeger pulled no punches for the legislature and painted a pretty dire picture.
"You know you're out of time when the chair of the fire districts association is riding on an engine and he's well over 65 and he looks back and his crew is the average age of 72 years old and he thinks 'what do we do when we get there and it's actually an emergency?' The trucks go in. There are people on it. But can they do the job when they get there?"
The business model of volunteer firefighting is broken, Yaeger said, broken by changes in society -- people don't volunteer as much as they used to -- and changes in firefighting. The days of a young guy signing up, showing up the next day in his turnout gear to man a fire hose are over. Now a volunteer requires hours and hours of training, certification, and more training.
The state requires firefighters to be trained to national standards and firefighting has evolved to include multiple specialties, from haz-mat to rope teams, to extrication, to search and rescue, and medics.
"It's a dangerous job," Yaeger said. "It's a job that you have to be physically able to perform. And my concern is not only the numbers that have diminished but I think it's the personnel we're looking at. We don't have the personnel that we used to have to be able to do this job.
"We're seeing guys that are you, know, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80, years old still trying to do the job because they still have it in their heart that this is what they need to do.
"My concern is some of those folks probably shouldn't still be doing this job. They need to retire. There are not many fire chiefs, volunteer fire chiefs, that want to go tell a 35 or 40-year member that it is time that you hang up the helmet."
Yaeger has spent years pushing for legal changes in Albany that would allow communities to compensate their volunteers. But there are folks in Albany, Yaeger indicated, who hang to the notion of volunteer fire companies as partly social clubs, which was fine in Ben Franklin's day and in subsequent decades, but doesn't work in the 21st century.
This is a crisis the state and the county have seen coming for decades. There was a 1987 study that warned of a shortage of volunteers and in 2000 the county produced a report outlining the challenges facing volunteer companies. But in neither case were solutions proposed.
"Society, economics, everything is against us," Yaeger said. "It's just a way different world than it was 20 years ago. I mean, we're seeing it now with the level of apathy in chiefs meetings. You've got chiefs that are into their second or third term and they're burned out. They don't want to do it anymore. But nobody else is stepping up to fill that position so they're fulfilling positions that they really don't want but they have to do it."
Yaeger said he doesn't have the answer but indicated he favors paying firefighters on a per-call basis, and also perhaps compensating them for training.
The only thing stopping such reform is state law and there seems little willingness in Albany to make such a change.
A couple of years, the state gave volunteers a $250 annual tax credit. In Maryland, Yaeger noted, volunteers get a $3,500 a year tax credit.
"The fact that it costs them a significant amount of money to be a volunteer firefighter isn't right," Yaeger said. "And right now the best of the state and give us is $250. The tax credit isn't working."
Being a firefighter is a skilled job and firefighting, like all skilled jobs, there are fewer and fewer young people eager to pursue those kinds of skills. On top of that, rural schools are graduating half as many potential recruits as they were 20 years ago.
"My concern is, we're an aging population, we're definitely a declining population, and we're an overtaxed state," Yaeger said. "So, there are three things that I'm looking at and saying 'OK. How will we fix this?' Because as soon as we offer anything up it means it's going to cost money and everybody goes 'wait a minute we don't have any money.' "
Compensation, however, seems to be the key to fixing the problem.
"I mean, I'm sure nobody here is willing to sign up to give their life for free, go to all the training that they have to do and then say you're not going to get compensated, there's no health plan, there's no retirement, there is no benefit," Yaeger said. "As a matter of fact, it's going to cost you money."
Deputy coordinator Bill Schutt said being a volunteer firefighter is unlike just about any other kind of volunteer activity in a small community.
"As a volunteer firefighter, it's not on a schedule," Schutt said. "It's not going into a Kiwanis lunch. It's not volunteering once a month. It's some scheduled stuff but it's three o'clock in the morning when the alarm goes off, you got to get up and go even though you go to work in a couple of hours. That only appeals to an odd group of people and there's not many of them."
Some might think that the answer is a full-time paid staff for the entire county, but at $100,000 per firefighter, Genesee County just doesn't have the call volume to warrant the expense.
It wasn't that long ago that volunteer fire companies were the center of a local community's activities -- Stafford had its carnival, Elba the Onion Festival, East Pembroke the mud races. Those have all disappeared and frequently now, multiple companies are being dispatched to calls that used to take only one fire company just so there will be enough manpower to handle even a minor emergency.
"I know the dispatcher has got to be sitting there with their fingers crossed inside the dispatch center hoping somebody is going to respond," Yaeger said.