CANAJOHARIE – Village Fire Chief Frank Nestle has announced he is making an effort to lower the minimum age for volunteer firefighters from 18 to 16 in order to make up for lagging numbers.
Nestle said the department and members of the Village Board are trying to determine with what young volunteer firefighters could be allowed to do, since the law presently prohibits them from actively fighting fires.
“Right now, we are trying to set up a set of rules and regulations,” Nestle said.
According to Nestle, members of the volunteer fire department already have given their unofficial thumbs-up to the proposal. They will still need to take an official vote, Nestle said, as well as gain approval from the Village Board of Trustees.
Recruits now must be 18 years old and out of high school to become members of the department.
According to Nestle, the Canajoharie department is affiliated with an Explorer Post, a group that allows children 14 years and older to volunteer for support roles with the department. That group’s charter with the group is about to run out, Nestle said, and the firefighters hope to have this new plan in place by the time the charter runs out.
According to Nestle, the new recruits would need to undergo training, and they must maintain a certain grade-point average in school to stay in the program. The teenagers could assist with support roles, but they would not be allowed to enter any structures on fire or respond to hazardous-material spills.
Recruiting and maintaining volunteer personnel numbers is not a new challenge for volunteer fire departments in the region.
As part of National Volunteer Week, the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York designated April 21 and April 22 as days volunteer departments could host open house events and focus on recruiting firefighters.
The website for FASNY also notes it has developed the Higher Education Learning Plan – a program providing tuition reimbursement to individuals attending community college for up to 80 credit hours. Student-volunteers are eligible to have up to 100 percent of their tuition reimbursed in exchange for maintaining their grades and fulfilling defined service requirements.
Nestle said people who take advantage of HELP can gain an education while serving the community, which could help with the department’s lagging numbers. Recently, Nestle said, the department had 52 members, but now that number is down to 44.
“It would at least be beneficial,” Nestle said of the effort to get more youngsters involved. “It is something we felt we needed to try.”
Nestle says he understands that young adults today lead hectic lives, and he appreciates how difficult is is to find time for volunteering in addition to work and child-rearing.
Arthur Cleveland can be reached at [email protected].