Dozens of volunteer fire companies in Erie County will open their doors to the public this weekend as they kick off a drive to recruit more than 600 new firefighters.
The recruitment efforts, aided by 55 billboards throughout the county, seek to bolster the ranks of volunteers in the face of a long-term decline.
"The goal of this campaign is to step it up a notch to make sure that we have adequate bench support to sustain us well into the future," said Tiger Schmittendorf, deputy fire coordinator for Erie County Emergency Services.
The open houses planned for Saturday and Sunday coincide with a statewide "Volunteer NY" campaign run by the Firemen's Association of the State of New York to entice more people to become firefighters.
Firefighters and public officials gathered Monday in front of a VolunteerNY billboard on Grand Island Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda to announce details of the recruitment campaign. To promote the effort, the association also has created a website -- recruitny.org -- with information about the open houses and local fire companies.
In Erie County, Schmittendorf said, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from about 10,000 two decades ago to about 5,000 today.
That has posed a challenge for some companies to cover daytime hours and has increased the need for reliance on mutual aid responses.
"There's definitely a decline across the state," said David Jacobowitz, president of the statewide association. "A lot of departments can't operate during the day."
County officials believe that a dwindling population in Erie County and increasing demands on people's time have made it more difficult in recent years to recruit new firefighters. Retention also has been an issue as some young firefighters leave for school or jobs.
"What we're trying to do today is remind everybody that just because we lost population, we still have a tremendous need in this community," said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Schmittendorf said the county typically has recruited between 400 and 500 new volunteers each year -- a number he said was strong compared with other counties across the country.