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.
Its a scenario every firefighter in Sullivan County risks their life to prevent.
But its an all too scary thought for the chiefs of the countys 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, "were lucky."
Its not a matter of the other active members dedication.
"Theres a lack of large business for employment here in town," Smith said. "And some of the ones that are here cant make it its 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 wont be there forever theyre getting older, and no one is signing up to replace them in the ranks.
Recruitment is the problem, Smith said, and its getting worse every day.
To start with, theres the initial commitment.
In Liberty theres a three-month requirement for potential volunteers to attend meetings at the firehouse, something that will show the department its 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 cant 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 dont 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. "Theres just no time."
Hes 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 someones business goes up in smoke.
"The fire department doesnt 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 . . . were not just going to a burning house.
"People just dont understand how important it is," he continued. "We are the countys unpaid professionals thats what the fire department is in every community."
Without volunteers, its 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.
Hes not a firefighter; hes 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 dont have to go into a burning building, theres 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 countys biggest villages.
The commitment isnt 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 theyre joining and the board of wardens.
Theres training, but Gozza said a lot of people dont seem to understand what that entails.
And with just a few volunteers in his own squad, Gozza said he knows theres always a risk that there just wont 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, thats 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 theyre 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 youre going to need.
"Theres 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 its 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. "Its a great opportunity to bring your kids into something positive."
And its something any firefighter would tell you can only benefit the community.
"Youre helping the community," Smith said. "At some point, everyone needs help . . . but its gotta come from your heart."
For more information on the requirements for becoming a firefighter in Sullivan County, call Fire Coordinator Dick Martinkovics office at 794-3000. For more information on the fire police, call Ron Gozza at 914-799-1695.