MONTICELLO, NY — On Saturday, February 12, the Sullivan County Recruitment and Retention Task Force hosted a seminar/workshop session …
MONTICELLO, NY — On Saturday, February 12, the Sullivan County Recruitment and Retention Task Force hosted a seminar/workshop session titled “Setting Our Volunteers Up for Success” at the Kartrite Resort and Indoor Water Park.
The course was presented by two veteran firefighters, who as a team operate the Professional Brotherhood, a training resource. One is Chief Brian Soller, an active volunteer for more than 30 years, currently the assistant chief of the Rock Hill fire department, a New York State fire instructor and a former chief of the Rock Hill and Monticello fire departments. The second is Chief Tom Andryshak, a career firefighter and paramedic, who began his career in firematics as a junior firefighter, became a New York State fire instructor and currently serves as assistant chief with the Florida fire department in Orange County.
The course addressed several key concerns in today’s fire service, as departments nationwide struggle with recruitment, retention, mentorship, professionalism and/or leadership issues.
In his opening remarks to the assembly, Sullivan County Fire Coordinator John Hauschild said the mission of the task force is “To assist the fire service… with increasing membership and improving retention for the benefit and safety of communities we serve.”
One critical issue raised in Soller’s PowerPoint presentation is how the public perceives firefighters, both paid professionals and dedicated volunteers.
As an example of public perception, Soller showed an image that read in part, “Nobody calls the fire department and says ‘Send me two dumbass firefighters in a pickup truck.’ In three minutes they want five brain surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve their problems.”
A bit later in the two-part program, which featured a couple of hands-on workshops to engage the participants, he donned a stark black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Firefighters Find ‘Em Hot and Leave ‘em Wet.” to which Soller pointed out that as professionals, wearing such graphic garb in public doesn’t present the most positive image of the fire services.
The promotional flyer for the course stressed that with volunteerism at an all-time low, it was crucial for fire and EMS organizations to focus on the difference between “make ‘em or break ‘em.” Soller noted, “We can’t afford to break ‘em.”
A total of 105 fire/EMS personnel attended the course, and counting a few out-of-county/state folks, represented 25 firefighting organizations and seven EMS providers.
According to Jill Holland, Kauneonga Lake Fire District Commissioner, out of the 40 fire companies in Sullivan County, these attended the course: Callicoon, Callicoon Center, Claryville, Fallsburg, Forestburgh, Highland Lake, Hortonville, Hurleyville, Jeffersonville, Kauneonga Lake, Lake Huntington, Liberty, Livingston Manor, Lumberland, Monticello, Narrowsburg, Neversink, North Branch, Rock Hill, Roscoe/Rockland, White Lake, White Sulphur Springs, Woodridge, Wurtsboro and Yulan.
As the past is often a prologue to the future, a couple of veteran volunteer firefighters offered their take on the current state of the volunteer fire services and the seminar.
Larry Knapp joined the North Branch volunteer fire department at the age of 16, and has served as the company’s secretary for 30-some years.
During the seminar, he was recognized as the longest-active-serving participant, having logged an impressive 57 years with his hometown department.
“My dad, Fred, was a member, and my brothers and I spent a lot of time down at the firehouse,” recalled Knapp, adding, “It was just a natural progression to join up when you got old enough.”
On the importance of volunteering with a fire department, he said, “It’s very important that we get people to join the fire companies. It’s the only protection for the community in case of fires, accidents and lost children… it’s the local fire company that gets called first; we’re the first people to arrive.”
Tom Totten is in his 53rd year with the White Sulphur Springs fire department, having joined at the age of 18. He followed in the footsteps of his firefighter-father George.
Asked his reaction to the course, Totten replied, “It was a very interesting seminar and very to-the-point. A lot of good stuff was handed out that we can use, and things we should be doing as far as mentoring, training and how we treat new prospects that join us.
“Back when I joined, there were a lot of grandfathers, fathers and sons that all belonged to the same department,” he added.
The event was documented by Chris Ramirez, owner/operator of Firehouse Road LLC, producer of professional cinematic aerial video and still photography.
Before turning his stable of lenses on the local firematics scene, Ramirez was a top shooter for the Times Herald Record and the New York Times, where he shot more than 2,000 assignments around the globe.
During the course, Soller and Andryshal took turns as presenters. Soller said, “This is not your grandfather’s fire service. We are volunteer firefighters, committed and skilled professionals. We represent something bigger than ourselves.”
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