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April 01, 2016 | NATIONAL Gordon Wren, Correspondent

Rockland County is located in southeastern New York State on the border with New Jersey and is a suburb to New York City. With a population of approximately 325,000. The county is a mix of dense urban, suburban & rural areas. What makes our county somewhat unique is that our residents and businesses are protected by an all-volunteer fire service.

As a county, we have been able to buck the overall loss of volunteer firefighters as seen in much of the rest of the country and New York State. Much of this can be attributed to the efforts of a group of volunteer firefighters who have developed innovative ideas through our recruitment and retention program. Chairman Frank Hutton leads a group of volunteer firefighters and local business leaders who have been able to obtain a federal grant that provided funding for a variety of marketing tools that added to the recruitment success over a period of many years. That grant ran out a few years ago and we have noticed a decline in new firefighters joining on a county-wide basis. The committee is addressing this and bringing in new members with new ideas to reverse the trend, before it becomes critical.

In one of the discussions regarding new ideas, a firefighter made a statement that got my attention. As part of our federal grant, we were providing scholarships to students who attended the local community college, as long as they stayed active with their departments. He stated to me that while the scholarship program is great, many of those students go away for their junior and senior years and never come back, even though many join departments elsewhere. His suggestion was that we reach out to our local BOCES as another source of potential young firefighters. He noted that a higher percentage of BOCES students stay in our county as they start supporting themselves through their trade, local unions, etc.

A week or so after this conversation, my wife called me in the middle of the workday indicating that our hot water heater was leaking. I rushed home to turn off the water and gas to the unit and was lucky enough to contact a young firefighter who recently started his own business as a plumbing contractor. This volunteer firefighter/plumbing contractor is in his late 20's and started out as a member of our explorer program, a junior firefighter and is now captain of his fire company.

He showed up at my house that same day and had the hot water heater replaced before dinner. I noted that his assistant had a pager on his belt and that he was a volunteer firefighter in the same company. I then asked the captain how his organization is doing as far as new members go. He indicated they had taken in approximately 20 members in the last 2-3 years. I asked him why they have been so successful, and he replied that they make it fun, do a great deal of training and other activities. He also indicated that they encourage younger members, treat them well, and they bring in their friends, who bring in their friends, etc., etc.

This stands in contrast to other companies and departments that are losing more members than they are gaining, or taking in no recruits. I am going to ask this young member to share his methods with the Recruitment & Retention Committee & other departments.

Pete Byrne, our Chief of Training has reached out to the BOCES administration and is pleased to report that we will be offering Fire Fighter 1 training classes through the BOCES curriculum during school hours for which they will receive high school and college credits, all with minimal time away from their busy schedules.

This program seems like a grand slam to me. Hopefully in the years to come, we will see an influx of more plumbers, carpenters, electricians, HVAC technicians, mechanics, etc., many of whom may be able to leave the jobs to respond to calls during work hours.

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Gordon WrenCorrespondent

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