For Hope Neale, joining her local fire department was the chance to gain on-the-job training as an emergency medical technician.
For Joshua Lee, it was a chance to give back to the community while also countering the boredom of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
This weekend, fire departments across Long Island hope to recruit volunteers just like Neale and Lee — both Syosset High School graduates — during the annual RecruitNY Weekend campaign sponsored by the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, or FASNY.
As part of the campaign, firehouses across the state will hold virtual open houses and, where possible, open their doors to the public to attract new members.
The biggest message FASNY, with 1,800 member departments statewide, wants to send is that unlike New York City's FDNY, and unlike what is depicted on television or in the movies, many local fire departments are compromised of volunteers — dedicated community members who fight fires and respond to medical calls.
On Long Island alone, there are 179 separate local fire departments — 71 in Nassau County and 108 in Suffolk County, according to Rob Leonard, the state FASNY spokesman and Syosset Fire Department assistant chief.
"We are the most economically-advanced, densely-populated suburb still covered by volunteers in the United States," Leonard said of Long Island. "But when you look professional, have professional gear, show up at the scene, fight a fire, save lives, people don't realize you're not being paid. That you're giving of your time."
Time-consuming, but fulfilling
For Neale, 19, the COVID-19 pandemic created "a crazy domino effect" that led her to volunteer for the Syosset Fire Department.
Neale, who hopes to pursue a medical career, was headed to Swarthmore College to play soccer until the pandemic altered those plans. Like many students across the United States, she elected to stay home, taking classes at Nassau Community College and Farmingdale State College, before being swayed by friends who had volunteered with the fire department.
"Being an EMT was a chance to get my feet wet in medicine," Neale said, noting she has already finished certification classes and plans to continue to volunteer when available moving forward — even after she goes to Swarthmore in the fall.
She added, "It's definitely a huge time commitment. But it's such a fulfilling thing I've experienced. Helping the community honestly helped me [through the pandemic]. You're getting people on the worst days of their lives and getting them to the hospital, making them safe. It's gratifying."
For Lee, 20, firefighting hadn't been an aspiration. He's studying biochemistry and economics at Stony Brook University.
"Friends and family were like, 'Why would you do this?'" Lee said. "I always wanted to help people and, after checking it out, I thought being a firefighter might be really interesting. I think that actually it's become a new passion that's awakened in me . . . and I can see it being something I may do the rest of my life."
Lee, who is Asian American, is representative of an effort among fire departments to be more inclusive in their recruitment.
"Traditionally, the fire service here has been a demographic a lot of people haven't thought they can be a part of," said Nassau County Assistant Chief Fire Marshal Michael F. Uttaro, an ex-chief at the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department. "But now recruiting means reaching out into all communities — Asian American, African American, India American, Hispanic and Latin American."
Tax breaks and pension benefits
For aspiring volunteers, Uttaro noted that of the perks that do exist, for many departments those include tax breaks and even tuition benefits.
In some cases, Greenport Assistant Chief Jim Kalin said, longtime members might even qualify for a small pension benefit.
Though, as Kalin jokes, the recruiting pitch he and many local departments generally offer volunteers is: No pay, long hours, cool hat.
"Most important is you're helping your community," Kalin said, noting that last year the Greenport Fire Department, which handled 847 calls, celebrated its 175th anniversary.
The Greenport department has about 125 members. The youngest is 17, the oldest is in his 90s. Because age and experience can limit roles, and because in a small North Fork town like Greenport a large number of volunteers are second-home residents available at only certain times of the year, Kalin said his department, like many on Long Island, has become flexible in crafting responsibilities.
Volunteers can train to be an EMT. Or, they can train to have an exterior role outside a building or structure in fighting fires.
They can even volunteer to cook meals.
"You show up," Kalin said, echoing the message of departments Islandwide, "we'll find something for you to do."
To find out what fire departments are participating in the RecruitNY campaign, visit http://www.recruitny.org/participation-area/. Potential volunteers can also contact their local fire departments directly.