By John Burton
“Nobody really thinks about us, until we’re needed,” said Josh Sanders, this year’s Red Bank volunteer Fire Department chief.
Like many emergency service organizations in New Jersey, some rescue squads and volunteer fire departments in this area are seeing dwindling membership and are looking for people who can answer calls when many of their neighbors are at work.
The Red Bank fire department, consisting of six companies around the 1.7-mile borough, has seen a decrease in the number of members over the years – especially from the 1970s when membership was so high, new members were admitted only when a vacancy occurred, Sanders said.
Back in 1990 total membership was 200 to 225, he said. Now, total membership is 120 to 150. Active members, those who are regularly available to answer calls and participate in activities, total 75 to 80.
“With the lesser membership [it’s] fewer people doing more things,” including responding to tripped alarms, serving on the various committees, he said. “The workload is more than it would be with a full roster.”
Bill Kramer, acting director of the Division of Fire Safety of the state Department of Community Affairs, said volunteering for emergency services has changed over the years.
“Volunteerism today is much different than it was years ago, from a commitment standpoint,” Kramer said.
It was common for women in past generations to stay home and for men to work, usually only one job. In today’s economy, for many families that just isn’t an option, with both working, sometimes with multiple jobs, he said.
“Obviously, it’s an issue,” for organizations to increase or even maintain membership given those factors, Kramer said. Retention of members is important “because you’ve made a commitment with them with respect to training and experience.”
Since 1991 there has been an overall decrease across the board of about 10 percent in volunteer fire companies in New Jersey, according Kramer, though some areas have been hit harder than others.
In Red Bank the volunteer shortage is worse for the first aid squad than the fire company, Sanders acknowledged, explaining the squad comes under the fire department’s purview.
“We’re really hurting for members,” he said.
The squad, which has 10 members – six of whom are active – there is a real need for new volunteers, said Tom Cosgrove and Shean Opie, two longtime members.
The greatest need is for volunteers during daytime hours. The squad has been relying on mutual aid assistance from surrounding towns to pick up the slack, they said.
About 15 or 20 years ago the squad had about 40 members, Cosgrove said.
Last year the Red Bank squad responded to 800 calls, according to Opie.
The squad is actively seeking members and will be holding an open house and barbecue 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23, at its building, 151 Spring St.
Opie and Cosgrove said the squad also participates in numerous community events, such as the 9/11 memorial service, to heighten people’s awareness of the organization.
“We’re trying to encourage that sense of duty in people,” Cosgrove said.
For those willing to volunteer their time to emergency services, it is time consuming to get and maintain certification. There can be an out-of-pocket cost for that training.
Training requirements have gotten more stringent, according to Kim Ambrose, a trained first responder for both the Fair Haven and Little Silver squads. The number of hours it takes to get certification is now 300 hours. In addition, members must obtain an additional 48 educational units; state resources pay for only the first 24 units, referred to as “the core,” she said.
“It is something that you have be dedicated to,” Cosgrove said, noting that in Red Bank there is a long tradition of volunteer service handed down from generation to generation.
The same is certainly true for the fire department, Sanders said. Those families are “the threads of the community.”
With some members, however, they are “interested but they burn out. And they have other commitments that pull them away.”
Ambrose believes that in some regards the training may be unnecessarily arduous and discourage participation.
“First aid doesn’t change that much,” she said. “If someone is bleeding, you stop the bleeding. If someone is not breathing, you give them oxygen and get them to the hospital.”
The training is vital, said Christopher Rinn, the state Department of Health’s assistant commissioner for public health, infrastructure, laboratories and emergency preparedness. “There’s a real need to keep up with changing technology, training advances, quite frankly, the latest in lifesaving methods.”
Communities are looking at ways to continue to supply services, including entering into shared service agreements, consolidation and using paid services.
Many towns also are offering incentives such as contributions to a pension fund for firefighters or perks like beach badges for shore communities, Kramer said.
Ambrose saw another way to help bolster the rolls. She established a first aid cadet program in Little Silver about 10 years ago. “I was really looking for something for my kids when they were in high school,” she said. Over the years she has seen the kids return from college for summer break and jump in to give the longtime squad members a bit of break.
Her next project will be trying to recruit stay-at-home-moms – and dads – to volunteer and hopefully increase the number of those available for day calls.