Written by Andy Newman, firstname.lastname@example.org Wednesday, 04 September 2013 00:00
Recruiting an adequate number of volunteer firefighters is an ongoing challenge for many Long Island fire companies, and Port Washington is no different.
But Fire Chief Raymond D. Ryan is confident that his department is well equipped to handle all emergencies.
“Our staffing levels are pretty decent but we could always use more,” the chief said last week of his unit’s participation with 12 other area Nassau companies in a recruiting drive funded by a special Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant of a half a million dollars.
“We’re actually pretty good to be honest with you,” he added. “We have enough coverage, absolutely. We have 318 active members but we have the capacity for over 500 volunteers. Every town goes through periods of highs and lows with recruitment.
After 9/11 we had a very large influx of people who wanted to join for various reasons. Obviously, patriotism and giving back to the community were two.”
Still, recruiting levels could be higher. When asked why they’ve dropped in recent years, Ryan responded, “There’s an economic factor. The volunteer fire service has been for the most part blue collar staffed traditionally, but here in Port we have members from every level. “
“In the past,” he continued, “we had many private companies here. Lewis Oil used to be here and it was a very large company and employed quite a few people that were members of the fire department. Back then, if a fire alarm were to occur Lewis would release its workers to respond. But that would also occur with mom-and-pop business, auto shops and some of the utilities in town like the water district.
“But that’s basically come to a halt as there aren’t that many of those kinds of businesses still around. And today so many workers are working two jobs, not just one. It’s more and more difficult for the volunteers that we do have to commit the time necessary.”
Ryan, who lives in Manorhaven, spent 31 years with the Port department before becoming its chief in March. He is also a detective with the Port Washington Police and is in his 24th year with them.
When asked how he balances two such demanding jobs, he answered, “Both jobs are full time. But one pays and the other one doesn’t.” He’s very proud of the fact that he is the direct descendant of Port’s very first fire chief, Eugene E. Carpenter, who was a charter member of the area’s first department in 1887. Ryan’s great, great grandfather later formed a second company and the two companies worked together to name Carpenter their chief in 1892.
He also cited the turnover in home ownership as another factor in making recruiting harder. “A lot of new owners have come from the 5 boroughs,” he said. “A lot of them don’t even realize that we are volunteer based. That’s why the FEMA grant is very helpful in letting people know that we are a volunteer organization.”
According to FEMA, New York State currently has over 1600 fire departments and volunteers staff almost 95% of them. New York City’s paid firefighters are an exception.
Another challenge to the department is the dramatic increase in the number of calls to which his crew must respond. “When I joined 31 years ago we were averaging about 900 – 1000 calls per year,” he recalled. Then it was about 2000 calls as the century turned. We’re now up to about 3300 per year. More than half of these calls are for emergency medical services.”
The chief was asked why there has been such an increase. “The building codes have changed over the years,” he answered. “New buildings now have to be built with alarm systems and carbon monoxide systems and we have to respond to each and every one of these alarms. And you don’t know until you get there if the alarm is real.” Several large assisted living facilities have been opened locally in recent years and that has added a population that can require more emergency services
The grant was facilitated by the work of JSK Public Safety who put Port and the other 12 departments together.
Chief Ryan sees the grant as being quite helpful. Funds are being used to print materials and also pay firefighters from neighboring companies to staff recruiting booths at town events. “It alleviates me from having to assign our own personnel to a recruitment booth so that we can continue to cover every event and still have full staffing in all of the houses,” he explained. “Not only do we want to continue to recruit for ourselves, but we need to cover a multitude of events that are always going on in town.”
Ryan cited another FEMA grant, also facilitated by JSK Public Safety, as being a boost to his department. This latest grant has allowed Ryan to add hire four additional people for maintenance and firefighting. Along with a small secretarial staff, they are the only personnel actually on salary.