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West Sayville joins recruiting efforts for 'young blood' firefighters on Long Island

Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped sharply in recent years, according to Robert Leonard, spokesman for the Firemen's Association of the State of New York.

West Sayville Fire Department 1st Assistant Chief Jeff

West Sayville Fire Department 1st Assistant Chief Jeff Houghtalen, right, with new recruits, from left, probationary firefighter Sean Bayne, future probationary firefighter Niko Keddy, and probationary firefighter Thomas Ottavio, at the department's open house for RecruitNY on Saturday. Credit: Newsday/Steven Pfost

The West Sayville Fire Department hasn’t seen a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters like other departments. But with most of its volunteers middle-aged or older, the department needs new people. So on Saturday, it joined more than two dozen others on Long Island in a statewide firefighter recruitment weekend.

“We’re trying to get more young blood, or just people who live in the neighborhood,” said Chief Gary Savino, 45. “We’re getting older. That’s the problem.”

The situation in West Sayville mirrors what’s happening across Long Island, said Robert Leonard, a Syosset volunteer firefighter and spokesman for the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, which created the annual RecruitNY in 2011. Saturday was the first time West Sayville participated.

Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped sharply in recent years, Leonard said. On Long Island, the number has either stayed steady at about 20,000 or only fallen slightly, he said.

Yet the average age of firefighters is increasing, and “at 70 or 75 they might be able to drive the fire truck, but they can’t run into the [burning] building …. We need people who can do the most physical, the most demanding jobs.”

Even when departments succeed in attracting young firefighters, it’s a challenge to keep them, because many move away from Long Island due to the high cost of housing and other reasons, he said.

On Saturday, Paul Stueve, 36, an Air National Guard member, picked up an application at the West Sayville department’s Main Street headquarters.

“I’ve been thinking about joining for a while now, but I was getting ready for a deployment and wanted to get the deployment out of the way” before starting firefighter training, Stueve told Assistant Chief Patrick D’Onofrio.

Stueve is trained in search and rescue and said he wants to use his skills locally. In the past, Stueve told D’Onofrio, acquaintances had told him “you’ll never have the time” to serve as a volunteer firefighter. But firefighter friends told him departments work around volunteers’ schedules.

“Everybody’s got stuff going on,” D’Onofrio said. “People do what they can.”

Assistant Chief Jeff Houghtalen said a mistaken belief that busy work and home lives preclude volunteering is one reason why more people don’t join the department.

As Houghtalen talked, several members of the junior firefighter program — a key source of young firefighters — stood nearby.

Participant Niko Keddy, of Oakdale, looks forward to turning 17 next month, when he qualifies to become a full-fledged firefighter.

“I like that any time of day I can go down to someone in my community and be of assistance to them in an emergency,” he said.

More than 600 firehouses statewide were scheduled to participate in RecruitNY this weekend. To find an event for your local department on Sunday, go to www.recruitny.org, scroll down and click “Participation.”

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