A few minutes after an alarm went off in the Syosset fire station on South Oyster Bay Road on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Bo Tian, a banker, suited up in the station and headed for the truck known as Engine 5.
He climbed into the truck alongside an insurance salesman, a landscaper, a carpenter and a college student — all in full firefighting gear. They raced behind a fire department ambulance staffed by volunteers who otherwise work as a glazier and a physical therapist.
While the call — one of what’s likely to be more than 100,000 in Nassau County this year — was for a routine accident involving four vehicles, Tian is part of the new, more diverse face of volunteer fire departments across Long Island. He is one of a dozen firefighters of Asian descent in the Syosset force alone, up from only two a few years ago, when the department began a drive to recruit more women, Asian-Americans and others who haven’t traditionally signed up.
“I knew a little bit about firefighting,” Tian, 40, says. “This was one of the biggest culture shocks to me, that firefighting here is a volunteer job.”
In hopes of attracting more such newcomers to the volunteer ranks, most of Long Island’s volunteer departments — there are 71 in Nassau and 108 in Suffolk — will join in this year’s annual statewide recruitment effort, RecruitNY, by hosting open houses April 27 and 28. Visitors will get tours of firehouses and fire trucks, as well as talks about fire prevention. It’s an important effort, officials say, because as the number of calls grows, fewer residents are volunteering.
Not surprisingly, as the face of Long Island changes, the makeup of its volunteer fire departments is changing, too, albeit slowly. Departments typically don’t track race or ethnicity, but a range of officials point to increasing diversity.
Elmont, Uniondale, Roosevelt and Baldwin have become particularly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, says Robert Hughes, chief instructor at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage.
Dozens of Latino firefighters volunteer in Brentwood and Central Islip, communities that the U.S. census estimates are 68 and 46 percent Hispanic or Latino, respectively. Volunteers of Asian descent are increasingly joining in Syosset, where 27.8 percent of the population is of Asian descent, according to census data.
Although volunteer firefighters are as much a part of Long Island as lighthouses and lawns, changing times and trends have cut into their ranks.
The number of volunteers in the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (which bears a male moniker as a tribute to tradition) dropped from 120,000 in the late 1990s to 80,000 by 2010, before rising to 100,000 as of 2018.
That includes about 11,000 in Suffolk (18,000 including emergency medical services, administrators and others) and fewer than 10,000 in Nassau, excluding EMS and administrators. The departments are nearly all volunteer, excluding dispatchers and janitorial staff. In addition, Long Beach and Setauket have some career firefighters.
“The number of volunteer firefighters across the nation has decreased over the past 10 years,” says Michael Uttaro, assistant chief fire marshal for Nassau County, former chief of the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department and a volunteer for 30 years. “Our numbers have dipped below 10,000. It was always a strong 10,000 or more.”
Suffolk’s Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services couldn’t say whether the number of firefighters in the county has decreased (departments aren’t required to report numbers of volunteers), but anecdotal evidence suggests it has.
“Long Island continually needs volunteer firefighters,” says Robert Leonard, a spokesman for the Firemen’s Association of New York State and a Syosset firefighter. “To have a dense population with 3 [million] or 4 million people in 120 square miles served exclusively by volunteer fighters is a pretty big deal.”
And though volunteer firefighters often appear in the news, their work may be clouded with misconceptions.
Uttaro recalls a particular question from Cub Scout parents visiting an Island firehouse.
“Many of the parents were asking, ‘So where do the guys sleep?’ ” Uttaro says. “They’re used to the concept of FDNY, with career firefighters who sleep in the firehouse.” In contrast, most firefighters on the Island rush to the firehouse only after a call is received.
Other misconceptions include that firefighters are exclusively young, although many are. Firefighters today sometimes join as late as their 50s; older firefighters, many typically on limited duty, remain long after that.
In addition to fighting fires and responding to medical emergencies, departments also often rely on volunteers with such skills as accounting to fulfill other functions.
Many paths to volunteering
Steve Klein, president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, joined the Oceanside department more than 50 years ago — and never left.
Like many longtime volunteers, he connected in his youth: When he was 16, Klein watched volunteer firefighters try to help his father, who had had a heart attack.
“It’s neighbor helping neighbor. These folks knew my family,” Klein says. “It encouraged me to move into the volunteer fire service when I was old enough.”
His son Kevin just finished a second term as chief of the Oceanside department; Kevin’s son Christopher joined the Oceanside department a year ago.
While the Kleins’ path started close to home, Tian’s journey to the Syosset fire department, which celebrated its centennial in 2015, began in China. When his girlfriend there traveled to New York, he remained in China, and they split. After Tian learned she was in the World Trade Center on 9/11, they reunited.
“We realized how much we loved each other,” he says.
They married in 2002 in China, moved to Queens in 2007 and to Syosset in 2013, when he learned about the volunteer force. When their daughter returned from a field trip to a firehouse, she talked about the firefighters as heroes.
“I looked deeper into it. ‘Can I do it?’ ” he remembers thinking. “You have two daughters. You want to be a hero.”
Javier Valentin, an ex-chief and current member in Brentwood, recalls being inspired by other volunteers.
“My uncle lived across the street from a firehouse,” he says of how firefighting found him. “I saw the guys getting on the truck, responding.” Valentin moved from Puerto Rico to Brentwood, where like him, at least half the 150 firefighters are of Hispanic heritage, in 1985.
It was friends who inspired Khalik James, a 19-year-old African-American, who joined the Elmont Fire Department six months ago.
“I joined because I was interested in the fire department,” James says, adding that African-Americans make up about 30 to 45 percent of the firefighters in Elmont. “I have a lot of friends who are in it. They told me why they joined and how it’s going.”
Women on the rise
Recent years have also brought increasing numbers of female volunteers, including firefighters and emergency medical technicians, their ranks helping to rescue overall falling numbers.
In Nassau, the number of female probationary firefighters (those new and in training) rose from 28 in 2015 to 38 in 2018, according to the county fire marshal’s office. About 32 percent of applications for departments in Suffolk in 2018 were female, according to FRES.
Still, women ascending the ranks is relatively new. Heather McNeill became the first female fire chief in Nassau in 2012. McNeill, whose last name was formerly Senti, is a commissioner in the Lakeview Fire District, which was founded in 1909.
McNeill says her family has been involved in the department essentially since it began. “It’s been a family tradition for many years,” she says, adding that departments are seeking to recruit more women.
“There are definitely more opportunities for women to be a part of it,” McNeill says. “It’s definitely encouraged by my fire district and my fire department.” She says there are more than a half dozen women in her department, including a few firefighters and more emergency medical technicians.
Hai Li Gao, 46, an emergency medical technician with the Syosset department, came to Long Island from China nearly 30 years ago and got trained as a physical therapist, her current occupation.
“About 2 1⁄2 years ago, my oldest son, age 14 at the time, joined the junior firefighter program at Syosset,” says Gao, a Woodbury resident and mother of three. “He would come home and talk about what they did.”
Gao’s invitation to become an EMT arrived on her street in the form of a Santa-suited firefighter handing out candy from a truck. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be a firefighter. Can I be an EMT?’ ” Gao says. “He said, ‘Yes.’ ”
While Gao joined later in life, Jessica Leeb, 23, a firefighter and emergency medical technician in East Farmingdale, started as a junior firefighter in 2013 at age 17.
“My family has been involved in many forms. My dad, a couple of my cousins, and my uncle volunteered,” says Leeb, adding that her firehouse has four female firefighters and three female EMTs. “My dad does it as a career. He’s a deputy chief at the FDNY.”
Fire departments hosting RecruitNY open houses focus primarily on young people, but they’re running up against new and old obstacles.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for the younger generation to volunteer,” says Paul Wilders, assistant chief instructor at Nassau’s fire academy. “The time constraints are increasing annually, [along with] the training mandates.”
Training guidelines come from New York State’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control, departments’ internal training mandates and the National Fire Protection Association.
“Young people can’t afford to stay here anymore. We may get a young person to join,” says Hughes, a member of the East Meadow Fire Department. “When they finally leave the nest to locate a place to live on Long Island, [many find] it’s too expensive for them.”
Job pressures also make it tough for many people to volunteer.
“When both mom and dad have to work, someone’s got to stay at home and watch the kids,” Hughes continues. “They don’t have the extra time to be a volunteer firefighter.”
Volunteering as a core value may have faded for some. “People just don’t want to volunteer anymore,” Hughes adds. “That’s a factor.”
Nevertheless, for many the call still cuts through the static — whether they are new to Long Island, come from a long line of volunteers or hear about the opportunity from a friend.
“It was a crazy feeling to know I’m going to help somebody save their house and possessions and put out a fire,” Christopher Klein, 19, says of his first fire after joining last year. “I wouldn’t have traded that feeling for anything in the world.”
While departmental recruitment is key, officials say, individuals who join have a coattail effect.
“A lot of it is just word-of-mouth,” Hughes says. “When my son joined, he mentioned it to his friends in school. You get a couple of other kids to come in.”
Duty calls more frequently
While the number of volunteer firefighters on Long Island has decreased, calls are rising. Officials attribute the increase in part to more automatic fire alarms and rules requiring carbon-monoxide detectors in commercial buildings.
There were more than 80,000 calls handled in 2018 by Nassau County's fire communications center, up from 76,000 in 2017, 74,000 in 2016, and 71,000 in 2011. Those included fire alarms, fueled by automatic alarms, which rose to about 30,500 in 2018, from 27,500 in both 2017 and 2016.
Indeed, even across the state, calls overwhelmingly are not for fires. In 2016, about half the calls (50.4 percent) in New York State were for rescues, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. By contrast, only about 4.9 percent involved fires.
“We’re one of the busiest departments on the Island,” Brentwood Fire Chief John Boyle says of about 1,300 calls a year. “We get everything. Motor vehicle accidents, assists, house fires.”
While calls are up overall, departments have seen a drop. The East Meadow department’s calls dropped from more than 400 to less than 300 annually, according to Robert Hughes, chief instructor at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy and a firefighter in East Meadow.
Still, Hughes says, “There are a lot of automatic alarms.”
Departments are coming up with ways to vet increasingly common automatic alarms, sometimes triggered by construction or cleaning, only responding with full force when they’re verified.
After an automatic alarm comes in to the East Meadow Fire Department, for example, the dispatcher calls to verify. If nobody answers, firefighters are sent.
“A lot of times, the resident will say, ‘Sorry, it was set off by cooking,’ ” Hughes says of alarms in homes.
— Claude Solnik
On a recent evening, firefighters battled a range of fires in Old Bethpage.
Oceanside firefighters worked in a warehouse. Oyster Bay firefighters headed into a six-story tower. Jericho firefighters grappled with flames in garden apartments, and Plainview volunteers rushed into a private dwelling.
If it sounds like Old Bethpage was burning, it was just another evening at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy, where volunteers train in classrooms and get hands-on experience.
“They come out to do live fire training,” says Robert Hughes, chief instructor at the school that trains probationary and experienced firefighters. “We create live fire.”
Experienced firefighters rotated from building to building at the facility staffed with instructors and safety officers.
“We give them a scenario,” Hughes adds. “Someone called from the garden apartments, smelled smoke on the second floor. At 2 a.m., a passerby reported smoke coming from a warehouse.”
In some cases, firefighters must find and rescue “hose dummies” (fire hoses shaped to look like humans).
Firefighters need to communicate, coordinate and properly position portable ladders, situated at windows to provide an escape hatch.
“There are communication issues,” Hughes says of exercises used to improve coordination and refine communication. “We see that across the country, not just here.”
Bo Tian, who underwent nearly 100 hours of classroom and hands-on training in Nassau, said that’s just the start. “In the fire department, we have drills, too,” he said. “Every month, at least once a month, is a company drill.”
Hughes says academy's pass rate is about 95 percent; some trainees stop showing up or fail a written exam or practical training.
Indeed, the fearsome scenarios that draw some push others away. “Most of those realize that they are either claustrophobic or just realize that firefighting isn’t for them,” Hughes says.
— Claude Solnik
What it takes to be a 'vollie'
Do you have the right stuff? You may, but you need to have the time and get the training to be a "vollie," or volunteer firefighter.
“It’s a large time commitment, especially in the beginning with initial training that takes over 100 hours,” says Robert Hughes, chief instructor at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage. “When I came in almost 40 years ago, there was a lot less training.”
Training continues after the equivalent of Firefighting 101, including how to handle blood-borne pathogens, hazardous materials, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements.
All that training is meant to prepare volunteers for a changing situations, says Steve Klein, president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. “Things going perfectly fine one minute can be lousy a minute later.”
Departments require minimum levels of participation, frequently mandating that active volunteers respond to 25 percent of calls — and sometimes more initially.
“I’ve left dinner on the table many times,” Hughes says. “Holidays, you leave your family, go out to a call. You could be back home in 15 or 20 minutes.”
Javier Valentin, who joined the Brentwood Fire Department in 1996, sees a commitment to community service as key — and as important as camaraderie. “I like doing it,” he says. “If we don’t do it, nobody else is going to come and do it.”
Hai Li Gao, an emergency medical technician with the Syosset department, notes that volunteers aren’t the only ones who sacrifice.
“Our spouses’ understanding and support enables us to put our family life on hold temporarily while we go out on calls to serve the community,” she says. “I think this is true with everyone who volunteers.”
To find a firehouse in your community that needs volunteers, visit RecruitNY.org or simply visit your local fire department. For more information on becoming a firefighter, visit the Firemen’s Association of New York State at fireinyou.org/become-a-firefighter.
— Claude Solnik