Firefighter bootcamp preps new volunteers to serve their community

PHOTOGRAPHER:

State Fire Instructor Chris Menge teaches a group of Montgomery County volunteer firefighters proper hose and water supply operations at the Montgomery County Fire Training Facility in Fonda on Thursday, July 14, 2022.

FONDA — After spotting a sign at the Cranesville Volunteer Fire Department seeking new members, Ally Mosher of Amsterdam was immediately interested.

Admittedly unsure if being petite would be a physical barrier, Mosher gained the confidence to join the department after reaching out to the fire chief and being invited to the station to become familiar with the equipment and try on the gear.

“Obviously I’m not the biggest. Everything is really heavy, but it will be worth it in the end,” Mosher said.

While Mosher became an active member of the department in June, specialized training is needed to fight fires. Members with the certification to fight interior fires are among the greatest need for volunteer fire departments throughout Montgomery County.

TRAINED VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS IN DEMAND

“There is a very small number of interior firefighters,” said Chris Menge, fire instructor for the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

While the 17 volunteer fire departments across sprawling Montgomery County have a combined total of around 700 members, many of those among the ranks are either social members or older volunteers who have stepped back from fighting fires.

Under 100 of the county’s volunteers are certified and actively performing interior firefighting duties, Menge estimated.

“Probably less than a third of every department,” Menge said.

That is not unusual across the state where the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by around 50,000 over the last three decades to about 90,000 total.

Recruitment and retention have become major focuses for departments, items that are all the more challenging for fire stations in rural communities with aging populations like Montgomery County.

SUMMER TRAINING BOOTCAMP

When mulling options to encourage the next generation to join their local volunteer fire departments, members of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Office with Menge developed plans to bring back a free summer firefighter training bootcamp that has been absent locally for around a decade.

Jeff Kaczor, deputy director of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Office, led the initiative visiting area high schools throughout the last year giving presentations about the opportunities involved in becoming a volunteer firefighter and meeting with interested students.

Juniors and seniors wanting to take the next step signed up with their local departments before training began this week. A total of 18 new recruits are taking part in the intensive three week training course, nearly all high school students with a few older community members.

The day-long training sessions at the Montgomery County Fire Training Center led by Menge mix classroom learning in the morning and hands-on skill training in the afternoon.

“It’s a commitment, they’ve got to be here every day at 8 o’clock,” Kaczor said.

MASTERING THE BASICS

The incoming firefighters baked in the afternoon sun clad in the turnout gear of pants and boots they will wear in the line of duty while learning proper hose technique spraying water across a grass field on Thursday.

Another group practiced hoisting an extension ladder several stories up against the block training structure on the grounds.

From these fundamentals, recruits will move onto training in live burns, vehicle fires, fire behavior, structure search and rescue and more.

Midway through the course, students will test to become certified in exterior firefighting. By the end of the three weeks they will take written exams and perform skill tests to become nationally certified interior firefighters.

“The majority of these students will go all the way through and be members of their fire department able to fight fires interior or exterior,” Kaczor said.

Despite the rapid nature of the training camp, Menge was clear that students must meet strict standards to become certified. The sessions are ideal for onboarding younger firefighters and individuals with flexible schedules compared to the typical six month process involving evening classes given one or two nights a week, he added.

“This is one of the best ways to get certified. It gives them an opportunity to really see what fighting fires is like,” Menge said.

NEW RECRUITS

Gideon Taylor joined the Fort Plain Fire Department nearly a year ago seeking to become active in the community after moving to the area from Queens during the pandemic. The 30-year-old is already trained in exterior firefighting and saw the bootcamp as a way to advance his skills.

“It’s awesome,” Taylor said. “We get to do a lot of hands on, which is awesome because your muscle memory kicks in and you learn things pretty quick. I would definitely rather it this way instead of an extended class schedule.”

The corrections officer for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department was able to alter his normal schedule to take part in the class before heading to work after each session. The odd hours don’t bother Taylor who has already experienced responding to late night and early morning fire calls to help others in need.

“It’s what I signed up for,” Taylor said.

Exposing students to opportunities and various careers in related emergency management fields is one of the goals of the training course. County staffers will visit next week showing the class positions that could build on their newfound skills and they could generally fill in addition to volunteering as a firefighter, Kaczor said.

Due to the young age of most of the trainees, Kaczor admitted they could leave the community soon after finishing training. The national certification is provided so they can take their skills wherever they go and hopefully join their local volunteer fire department whether near or far.

“We always have the possibility of people moving on, that’s just a fact of life, but we’re giving them the opportunity to start something and be part of the community and realize that they’re giving back something as a volunteer,” Kaczor said.

EXPANDED OPPORTUNITIES

Firefighter training and serving with a volunteer department can be a pathway to college opportunities, Kaczor said. Scholarships, housing programs and other benefits are available to incoming students involved with their local fire department.

Mosher is already a commuter student at Siena College studying psychology who always had an interest in becoming a criminal investigator.

After joining the Cranesville Volunteer Fire Department, Mosher is now considering a career as a fire investigator. For now, becoming a fully trained volunteer able to assist fighting fires is motivating.

“Being able to help somebody in the most desperate time, their whole life is in flames, they need somebody,” Mosher said.

Eytan Goldstein, 17, is still considering his future plans while looking ahead to entering Canajoharie High School as a senior in the fall. Joining the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department and learning the skills to become a firefighter is its own reward.

“I joined for the experience and the knowledge so for the rest of my life I know what to do in case of emergency,” Goldstein said.

Until turning 18 next year, Goldstein won’t be able to fight interior fires. He believes he has what it takes and plans to use his skills volunteering as a firefighter wherever he ends up.

BOLSTERED RANKS

Once their training is complete, Kaczor said the new recruits will immediately boost the ranks of their local fire departments.

From among the bootcamp, eight students have joined the Fort Plain Fire Department, two joined Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department, two joined Charleston Volunteer Fire Department, one joined Cranesville Volunteer Fire Department and three joined Mohawk Fire Department.

“I’m proud of all the kids,” Kaczor said.

Organizing and delivering the bootcamp took months of effort, Kaczor admitted. But he said it was well worth it and he plans to make the free three week training course for volunteer firefighters an annual offering.

“If we don’t do this type of thing, we’re just going to keep dwindling in our numbers,” Kaczor said.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

By Ashley Onyon

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