Sullivan County Democrat
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Can You Volunteer?

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — March 15, 2005 – Imagine a whiff of smoke, an alarm that pierces the night. The call goes through to 911, but no one answers.
It’s a scenario every firefighter in Sullivan County risks their life to prevent.
But it’s an all too scary thought for the chiefs of the county’s struggling volunteer fire departments.
Liberty Chief Rube Smith boasts a roster of guys that would rival any in the county – the Liberty Fire Department has three companies which, together, have 80 active members.
But on an average day when a call goes out, only 20 volunteers go racing to the scene of a house engulfed in flames.
To even get that many, Smith said, "we’re lucky."
It’s not a matter of the other active members’ dedication.
"There’s a lack of large business for employment here in town," Smith said. "And some of the ones that are here can’t make it – it’s not easy for an employer to have people leave in the middle of the day."
Even the men and women who do respond to the average fire call in Sullivan County won’t be there forever – they’re getting older, and no one is signing up to replace them in the ranks.
Recruitment is the problem, Smith said, and it’s getting worse every day.
To start with, there’s the initial commitment.
In Liberty there’s a three-month requirement for potential volunteers to attend meetings at the firehouse, something that will show the department it’s worth sinking the money and time into having you trained and purchasing equipment.
Every volunteer must pass a physical before even being considered for any local department.
Plus, to be a firefighter, any man or woman 18 or older has to take a mandatory seven-month state-sponsored course.
"They can’t even go near the scene of a fire without that training," Smith said.
Often that seven-month course is enough to keep people from volunteering.
Callicoon Fire Chief Willy Maxwell said a lot of folks say they don’t have the time.
"A lot of people work out of town, and a lot of families the mother and father are both working," he said. "There’s just no time."
He’s got a department of 21 volunteers, and nine to 15 typically arrive at the scene of a Callicoon emergency.
"We do pretty good," Maxwell said. "But the recruiting part is hard . . ."
The dedicated volunteers, both with families of their own, suggest the lack of time is a poor excuse when someone’s business goes up in smoke.
"The fire department doesn’t just go to fires," Smith explained. "We have specialized trucks to go to motor vehicle accidents, we go to drownings, we go to floods, we go to downed wires . . . we’re not just going to a burning house.
"People just don’t understand how important it is," he continued. "We are the county’s unpaid professionals – that’s what the fire department is in every community."
Without volunteers, it’s hard to keep that service at a top-notch level. Eventually, it may be hard to keep it going at all.
Ron Gozza serves as captain of the Liberty Fire Police.
He’s not a firefighter; he’s one of the guys on the scene helping to direct traffic and prevent injury to both the firemen and the public.
Even in a position where you don’t have to go into a burning building, there’s a difficulty finding people to lend a hand.
The department currently has only about five fire policemen – a small number for such an active department in one of the county’s biggest villages.
The commitment isn’t quite as hefty as it is for a fireman – a volunteer interested in the fire police must attend truck duty at the Liberty station once a week for three months, then they must be voted in by the company they’re joining and the board of wardens.
There’s training, but Gozza said a lot of people don’t seem to understand what that entails.
And with just a few volunteers in his own squad, Gozza said he knows there’s always a risk that there just won’t be someone there to answer the call. In Liberty, for example, both Gozza and his business partner are fire policemen – if the two are out of town on business, that’s half the team gone.
"We need more people," Gozza said.
And watching the firefighters since signing onto the fire police last year, Gozza said he knows they’re feeling the crunch too.
"I have a newfound respect for firefighters," he said. "I never realized what these guys go through, going out at 3 in the morning in the freezing cold, the rain.
"The guys are very religious – they go out at all hours."
But like the fire police, they could always use more manpower at the scene.
"The more manpower, the lighter the load per guy," Smith said. "You never know what you’re going to need.
"There’s always difficulties at the scene because every scene is different," he continued. "We have a great county mutual aid system where if you call, the other guys come running."
Cooperation from the county 911 Center and county Fire Coordinator Dick Martinkovic are crucial to saving lives, Smith said.
And now fire departments in Sullivan County are putting more emphasis on recruiting. There are radio ads aimed at heightening residents’ awareness of just what that siren means. And some departments are turning to the local school systems to encourage kids to think of fighting fires in their future.
In Liberty, at least 10 current members were junior firefighters first (something available to boys and girls ages 16 to 18).
But it’s an option for men and women of any age.
"A lot of guys bring their kids in and they end up being firemen," Gozza said. "It’s a great opportunity to bring your kids into something positive."
And it’s something any firefighter would tell you can only benefit the community.
"You’re helping the community," Smith said. "At some point, everyone needs help . . . but it’s gotta come from your heart."
For more information on the requirements for becoming a firefighter in Sullivan County, call Fire Coordinator Dick Martinkovic’s office at 794-3000. For more information on the fire police, call Ron Gozza at 914-799-1695.

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