Many volunteer fire departments in the state are confronted with declining membership, and our area is no exception. In Fonda, we recently saw the Village Board dissolve the department in favor of coverage from the Mohawk Volunteer Fire Department.
Figuring out how to grow membership is a common challenge for volunteer organizations, including those that are vital to our communities’ safety.
We were intrigued by the proposal in Canajoharie to decrease the minimum age to join the volunteer force from 18 to 16. Chief Frank Nestle noted the younger members would be prohibited by the state from active firefighting roles.
We think lowering the age is a good idea. The teens wouldn’t be able to respond to calls when they are in school, but their presence when they are available would be valuable.
Nestle said the Canajoharie department is affiliated with an Explorer Post, a group that allows children age 14 and older to volunteer for support roles with the department. That group’s charter is about to run out, Nestle said, and the firefighters hope to have this new plan in place by then.
Giving young people an opportunity to volunteer earlier could introduce them to a career path. It also gives them a place to go after school and a sense of pride in their community. In addition, they could learn valuable lessons from elders in the department.
Allowing members to join at a younger age is like taking out an insurance policy for the department. In just two years, these young members would be eligible to be members with more responsibility. This program would give them a head start.
If the department decides to do this, we hope it will spark more interest from volunteers. Other volunteer fire departments should consider a similar approach.