Fire & Emergency Services

The difficulties faced by volunteer fire departments and emergency medical squads across the country in recruiting new members are well documented. Increased job and family demands and longer work commutes are leaving people -- especially young parents -- with less time and energy for community service. Ever-increasing training mandates are forcing volunteers to perform like un-paid professionals.

In the Adirondack Park, these problems are compounded by rapid aging and a declining population, as shown in Figure 7 and Figure 8.

  • The number of Park residents age 29 and younger -- the prime pool of future volunteers -- is projected to drop by 17,320 between 2000 and 2030, an average decline of 14% per decade.
  • The Park population is projected to decline by more than 500 people annually during this decade. That decline is projected to increase to more than 900 per year in the next decade. From 2000 to 2030 the Park population is projected to decline by 16,670 people.
  • In 2030, projections show that more than a third of all Park residents will be over the age of 60. The responders are getting older and the aging population they serve has greater needs.

These developments are already manifesting themselves in the size and makeup of the Park’s volunteer fire and emergency medical squads.

Fire Department Trends

In the fall of 2013, APRA surveyed the volunteer fire departments (VFDs) located wholly within the Adirondack Park regarding their membership numbers and ages. Eighteen (26%) of 70 departments, representing seven counties, provided complete surveys. Among the findings:

  • The average number of active firefighters per department dropped from 34 to 32 -- a decrease of 6% -- between 2007 and 2013. The average age of these volunteers was 44, six months older than in 2007. The average age of volunteer firefighters nationwide is 40.
  • APRA also looked specifically at the trends with interior firefighters -- those individuals with the training and physical capabilities to operate inside a burning structure. Only one in three Adirondack firefighters are certified as such. The survey found that the average number of interior firefighters per department dropped from 12.8 to 11.3, a decline of 12% in the past six years. This is particularly significant when one considers that “Two-In, Two-Out” firefighting regulations call for four interior firefighters to be on-scene at any structure fire (two to enter the building and two equipped and ready for immediate rescue).
  • Given the difficulties in recruiting and retaining volunteers, 25% of the VFDs in the Park reported that they expect to hire some paid staff within 10 years.

EMS Trends

APRA also surveyed the 32 volunteer emergency squads located wholly within the Adirondack Park in the fall of 2013. Thirteen (41%) of the squads, representing eight counties, provided complete surveys. Among the findings:

  • The average age of EMT or paramedic personnel was 43.
  • Seven of the 13 squads operate with some paid staff. Another three reported that they expect to do so within 10 years.
  • Annual call volume for the squads ranged from a low of 39 in Piseco to 902 in Saranac Lake, with an average volume of 432 calls per year. In central regions of the Park, the “Golden Hour” for trauma patients to reach a hospital typically expires in the back of an ambulance. Travel times for response and transport are shown in Figure 16 at right.

Travel times for work and training are substantially greater for Park residents who volunteer as EMTs. Every training mandate adds to this burden.

Concerns

The disturbing trends for volunteer services in rural America require adaptations to the traditional practices. The demographics for the Park show a region “further down the road” than most of New York and the nation. Some of the potential consequences may well occur here first, some already have.

Automatic Mutual Aid -- Mutual Aid used to be an option of last resort, when overwhelming circumstances necessitated that a fire company call in reinforcements from other communities in the region. With fewer volunteers, however, coverage gaps are beginning to appear in many fire districts on a regular basis, particularly during weekday business hours. In some areas, two departments are routinely answering calls for help by mutual agreement.

While this provides an assured initial response, it results in many more responses by each department over the course of a year. There is also a potential for a ripple effect, as other regional departments may be called upon to cover for the two departments attending to the single call.

Hybrid Volunteer/Professional Services - In the fall of 2013, seven of the thirteen emergency squads surveyed within the Adirondack Park reported having some paid staff. An additional three of the squads surveyed, plus a quarter of all fire departments surveyed in the Park, expect to become hybrid Volunteer/Professional services over the next ten years.

A typical arrangement would be for EMT/Drivers to work in clerical positions or as station-keepers during certain high demand periods. They would then switch to being volunteers in response to a call. These personnel can also be paid professionals working alongside of volunteers.

As circumstances change, the costs can escalate quickly. An EMT working specific shifts or in seasonal arrangements might cost $10,000-20,000 annually. Once it becomes a 24/7 year-round team with two qualified personel, the cost can approach $500,000.

A fire department with a four-firefighter rotation can add a million dollars a year to its costs versus a volunteer department.

Delayed Respones -- If an EMS call is not answered immediately by the assigned agency, a dispatcher will seek the next closest responder. Also an emergency squad that cannot maintain adequate response rates and meet other qualifications, could lose their certification. For the responders in adjacent areas, the burden of covering another territory becomes permanent. Warrensburg EMS expanded their territory recently, when Thurman EMS surrended its certificate of need to the NYS Health Department.

In the Adirondack Park, demography and distance compound the already problematic circumstances facing all rural emergency service providers. As this gap widens, emergency service responders in the Park will be among the first to address the issues that emerge.