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One way to recruit firefighters: Offer kids ride to school in fire truck

Here’s one way to get parents to a volunteer fire department open house: Give their children a chance to win a ride to school in a fire truck.

That’s what they’re doing in Blasdell on Saturday as part of a statewide recruitment push.

And Blasdell hasn’t forgotten the parents, who could win a free rental of the fire hall – a $300 value – just for “liking” the Blasdell Fire Department’s Facebook page.

It used to be volunteer fire companies had waiting lists of volunteers wanting to join.

But these days, as the number of volunteer firefighters dropped after the post 9/11 surge, departments are doing whatever it takes to get potential members through their doors.

That means letting members of the public put on turnout gear and run through an obstacle course or man a hose, or having Mercy Flight land a helicopter at open houses. Or offering sweet rides to school.

Fire companies throughout New York will take part in this weekend’s fifth annual RecruitNY by holding open houses, showing off equipment, offering safety tips and sponsoring other activities to call on more volunteers to join the ranks of fire companies.

“We have done the recruitment weekend the last two years with moderate success,” said Blasdell Fire Chief Len Fusco.

So this year the department borrowed the win-a-ride-to-school idea from another department, and Firefighter Renee Murray came up with giving away a fire hall rental through Facebook. Blasdell’s membership dwindled to about 15 five years ago, and is up to 28 today. That’s down from the high mark of 50 in the 1970s.

There were 110,000 firefighters in the state in the 1980s, said Robert Leonard, a spokesman for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. The numbers stayed steady through the 1990s, and there was a small surge after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001. But then the number dropped off.

“By 2010, we were down to 84,000 volunteer firefighters,” said Leonard, who also belongs to the Syosset Volunteer Fire Company.

There are a number of reasons for the decline.

Training in the post 9/11 world got more rigorous, and there are more families with both parents working one or two jobs, making it more difficult to volunteer, he said. The decline also mirrored the exodus of population from New York, said Dan Neaverth Jr., Erie County commissioner of emergency services.

The state association and Erie County firefighters obtained federal grants under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program to increase recruits and retain members. Funds were used for public awareness advertising, to pay for active members to attend community colleges and for retention strategies such as training and increasing morale.

“We feel it’s been very successful,” Leonard said.

Since the RecruitNY program started in 2011, 12,500 volunteers joined the ranks, bringing the number to 96,500, he said.

“We feel we’ve made significant progress to stem the loss,” Leonard said.

After signing up new members, companies work on retaining them.

“Many people don’t realize that you don’t have to spend that much time at the fire hall, and they don’t realize that you don’t need any prior experience to join. We pay for all the training,” said Fusco, of Blasdell.

There are more than 5,000 volunteer firefighters in Erie County, and more than 1,800 volunteers have joined fire companies since 2012, according to Neaverth.

At least 23 of the 94 fire companies in Erie County will have open houses and programs this weekend. Visitors can tour fire halls, and some will have children’s’ activities, while adults can put on turnout gear and go through an obstacle course or man a hose. For more information, contact RecruitNY or iVolunteer.org.

“Stop at one of the open houses,” said Neaverth. “I would encourage them, if nothing else, to stop in and talk to the rank and file. Don’t say ‘I’m not going to do it because I could never go into a burning building.’ ”

“Being a firefighter is much more than answering the call,” Ellwood Fire Company Fire Safety Officer Zach McFadden said.

There are multiple jobs in a fire company, and not every firefighter goes into burning buildings, Neaverth said.

Fire companies also are looking to appeal to families, and they have activities for all ages.

“Hopefully, at some point, that 5-year-old becomes an 18-year-old and wants to join the fire company,” Neaverth said.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com