PRINCETON — Mailers are going out to at least 15,000 borough residents who are considered to be a good fit for the town's volunteer fire department.

But unless the department sees an incredible response, chances are their centuries-old all-volunteer model will be hosed.

The department in March received approval to hire up to six paid members, according to Bob Gregory, director of emergency and safety services for the town.

"Our plan is not to get rid of volunteerism," Gregory told New Jersey 101.5. "The issue is the declining number of volunteers. We just don't have as many people as we used to coming out to volunteer for the fire department."

The trend, Gregory said, sometimes left firefighters without a driver or with a short crew, and the department would have to rely on mutual aid.

"Our goal is to get some career staff in the firehouse, kind of around the clock, so we ensure that we have drivers available," Gregory said.

Exactly how many paid members they bring on will likely depend on the success of the recruiting push. The cost of a paid employee falls on the taxpayers, so the department wants to be responsible with hiring decisions, Gregory said.

The idea of a part-paid/part-volunteer fire department has been around for a while. New Jersey is dotted with operations that pay select members now but never had before.

"When you've got dual income homes, you have people commuting long distances to work, or in some cases working two jobs, they have less time to volunteer," said Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

When departments are stretched ultra thin, mutual aid agreements may not fill all the gaps — especially if departments in nearby towns are experiencing the same troubles.

Gregory said the town's fire department currently has 30 active volunteers that are "really engaged."

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