Helping others continues to drive N.Y. first responders
Volunteers across the state continue to answer calls and work on recruitment
By Thomas Tedesco
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. — The pagers have seemed to go off more and more these days.
However, there doesn’t seem to be as many people or resources available to respond to the influx of those emergency service calls.
For several chiefs of volunteer fire and EMS companies in Niagara County, that is the core issue that they face on a day-to-day basis.
“Recruiting and retention is very hard for volunteer service nowadays,” South Lockport Fire Co. Chief Chris McClune said.
Like most local volunteer companies, McClune said South Lockport consists mostly of basic EMTs along with a few advanced EMTs and paramedics.
“It takes a special type of person wanting to do the job,” McClune said.
South Lockport’s longest tenured volunteer, Peter Smith is one of the many “special” people that comprise the volunteer first responder community.
Smith is a third-generation volunteer firefighter at South Lockport. His grandfather was a charter member of South Lockport when it was founded in 1943. His father and brother served as volunteer firefighters along with his mother who was a member of the ladies auxiliary.
“It was a family affair,” Smith said.
He recalled growing up down the street from the original firehouse located on the corner of Transit and Dorchester Roads. He remembers his father and several of his other family members rushing over to the hall when calls came in.
When Smith joined as a volunteer in 1969, he said the surrounding areas in which they served looked quite different than they do today.
“Transit was a two-lane road. And out to Dorchester Road, it was all farmland going forward,” he recalled.
The way that they would approach the scene as first responders was a little bit different then, too.
“I remember when it was load and go,” Smith said. “The goal was to get to the hall as quick as you can, get to scene, get the patients out and get them to the hospital.”
Throughout all the changes he has seen, Smith feels the challenges stemming from a decreasing number of volunteers is perhaps the most concerning in his nearly 55 years of service.
“I used to feel like we had an answer, but I don’t know what the answer is anymore,” he said.
While his activity with the company has slowed down in recent years, Smith said he tries to contribute as much as he still can in addition to help along younger volunteers and pass along what he has learned throughout his years of service.
“I am very lucky to have been able to give my time to community. I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Smith said.
Ultimately, it’s helping those around you that is the driving force for nearly any volunteer first responder.
Finding those that can help is no easy task.
Niagara Active president and EMS Captain Josh Lengen summed up the current situation. “The system is generally very overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s difficult when you have a great need and a limited pool.”
The reasons for the dip in membership at volunteer companies varies greatly, but the most common reason most company leaders point to is the amount of time and dedication that goes into being a volunteer. Many chiefs have specifically pointed to weekdays and overnights as the times in which they see the least amount of volunteers responding to calls.
“Things have changed,” Wrights Corners Fire Co. Chief Jonathan McKnight said. “Moms and dads both might have to work two jobs with the way the economy is.”
All the while, emergency calls have seemed to continue to increase for most companies.
Rapids Chief Mike Moore said, “For the last five years, we have consecutively broken the call records for the company.”
Coupled with a shrinking base of volunteers, it also puts significantly more strain on those who are already responding to calls.
“Volunteers are getting physically exhausted,” Moore said. “After working a full eight to 12 hours at their day job and then another eight hours after that (with the volunteer company), they don’t have much time to do anything else.”
Hundreds of hours of extensive education are required before someone is able to receive certification to become an EMT in New York state. Students are required to attend classes two days a week over a six-month period at a local learning site authorized by the state Department of Health. Locally, EMT classes are held at Niagara County Community College.
The classes are a mixture of lectures, hands-on skills training and clinical time working in an ambulance along with additional field experience. Once that is completed, then a student would take both a written and skills test to get the certification.
In most cases, the state will cover the most costs for someone to get their basic level EMT training. Training costs for advanced EMTs, which involve more advanced procedures and interventions, are also similarly covered by the state.
Paramedics, who can provide more extensive first response aid, require much more extensive education through the state that requires thousands of hours of training on top of basic EMT certification. Locally, paramedic classes are held at Erie Community College.
In most cases, the student would have to cover thousands of dollars in tuition costs out-of-pocket. The ECC course requires the equivalent of 39 college credit hours taken over the span of three days a week during the course of one year.
For all levels of EMS, a series of recertification classes are required every three years.
Despite it all, volunteers are quick to point out the main reward of the job.
“We do it because we like helping people,” Rapids Chief Moore said. “It feels good to help someone when they’re having possibly the worst day of their life.”