Struggle continues for volunteer NJ fire companies
Back in the day, a busy year was 200 calls for East Brunswick Fire District 1. Now, the volunteer squad runs between 500 and 700 calls on an annual basis.
Yet the list of active firefighters on the district's roster is just a tad higher than it was decades ago.
"We're worse off now than we were before," Commissioner Fred Hoover told New Jersey 101.5.
The struggle continues for New Jersey volunteer fire companies attempting to attract new members and keep them around.
Much of the district's roster is getting up there in age, Hoover said — they don't have the stamina to go inside a burning building.
So, a couple times per year, all three fire districts in town post signs searching for volunteers with plenty of firefighting years ahead of them.
"If we get five years out of a person, we're doing pretty good," Hoover said. "I would guess the majority of folks that live in town — if they're not retired, they're probably a two-income family."
Many locals, he added, are commuting to New York City for 12-hour days. Or they've moved here from the city and aren't familiar with unpaid service.
In turn, committing to a volunteer position — particularly one that requires risking one's life — may not be so appealing. Even if they attract a young individual out of college, Hoover said, eventually they'll start a family and either ship out or lose free time.
Gordons Corner Fire Company in Manalapan is "always looking for new people to join," said Chief Rob DiTota. The company's current roster of 53 volunteers "isn't bad," he said, but that could change in an instant.
"It's becoming more and more expensive to live in this state, so many people are either moving our or they're working more than one job," DiTota said.
Volunteers are trained the same as paid firefighters, he added. And that initial commitment can be a turnoff for anyone new to the world of fighting fires.
"There's over 180 hours of initial firefighter training that needs to be completed, which is basically like a semester of college," DiTota said. "It's difficult to go through all the training. It's long, it's intense, and then when you're all complete you have to follow up with more advanced training as time goes on."
Legislation introduced in late January suggests current regulations policing the duties of junior firefighters may be keeping individuals from joining volunteer ranks as well.
The bill sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Howarth, R-Burlington, would ease restrictions on the tasks junior members can perform.
"The volunteer work that firefighters do in their local neighborhoods is nothing short of amazing, but they are constantly looking for new membership so our towns can remain safe," Howarth said. "In order to create a farm system of future firefighters, state regulations need to be changed."
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.