On the heels of last week's massive brush fires on eastern Long Island, state and county officials Monday encouraged residents to consider volunteer firefighting.
It was part of a statewide outreach campaign called "RecruitNY" to increase ranks of volunteers. The campaign culminates this weekend when volunteer fire departments across the state open their doors as part of the second annual recruiting drive organized by the Firemen's Association of the State of New York.
At an afternoon news conference at the Nassau County Firefighters Museum & Education Center in Uniondale, officials said the recent brush fires in Ridge and Manorville -- which scorched 1,000 acres of pine barrens -- highlighted the value of the Island's volunteer forces and the importance of aggressive recruitment.
"It makes the public aware of what we do, what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter," said Robert McConville, second vice president of the state Firemen's Association. "They're very skilled individuals, highly trained, highly adaptable to be able to handle whatever situation they face."
While the Island's volunteer forces have remained steady at about 20,000 firefighters, some departments have struggled with recruiting and retention as calls for service have surged.
McConville said the drive's success will be measured by the "number of departments who open up their doors and engage the public." He added, "Once you open the door, they come."
Officials said they anticipate an increase in participation this year, with fire officials from about 350 to 400 departments indicating they plan to participate -- up from the 150 departments in 50 of the state's 62 counties that participated last year.
The two-day event allows visitors to tour firehouses and examine gear and other equipment. Officials said residents should contact their local fire departments or visit recruitny.org for more information.
John Cortapasso, a member of the volunteer Bellerose Fire Department, said last year's drive increased membership in the 25-member force by three firefighters. Cortapasso, who has been a volunteer for 25 years, called the job "one of the most important things I can say I've done in my life."
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said he hoped incentives offered by the county -- including a tax abatement and scholarship opportunities -- would drive recruitment. "We need these fine men and women in our volunteer fire service to be our first line of defense," said Mangano, a Republican.
Daniel McConnell, the first assistant chief at the Halesite Fire Department, said a spike in service calls has necessitated an increase in members.
The department, which covers just 2.2 square miles, received more than 600 calls for service in 2011. Recruitment to the department grew by more than 20 percent after last year's drive, he said.
"We are proof that programs do work," he said.