Engine Co. 2 of the West Sayville Fire Department kicks...

Engine Co. 2 of the West Sayville Fire Department kicks into gear to respond to a recent alarm. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Volunteering for the fire service in West Sayville is a tradition that spans three generations in the Marra family — members of a department officials say is thriving as many volunteer outfits like it across New York are struggling to attract members.

“I grew up with it," said volunteer firefighter Michael Marra, 49, of Oakdale, who recalled following his father into the service before his own two sons did the same years later.

"Always going and chasing fires with him in the car … going up to the firehouse on Sunday mornings when he was having coffee and I’d be running around the firehouse. I joined the juniors when I was 8, and I’ve been involved since,” Marra told Newsday.

West Sayville's chiefs say that tradition of legacy volunteers, with family members following each other into the service, is part of what makes the West Sayville Fire Department stand out from struggling departments because it helps in recruiting and retaining members.

But those at the helm of the department, which was founded in 1891, say its success also is because of its strong culture.

A juniors program starts training potential volunteers at the age of 8.

The department works to accommodate extended leaves from members who temporarily move away for college, and the success of the department's drill racing team also has inspired many volunteers to join, officials say.

The department has 124 active members that cover West Sayville and Oakdale, a territory of 5.9 square miles. It has seven pieces of apparatus and two stations, with volunteers responding to roughly 450 calls per year. 

A strong legacy tradition like the one at West Sayville is “positive, but not the norm,” said John D’Alessandro, association secretary for the Firefighters Association of the State of New York — a nonprofit that educates and supports volunteer firefighters.

“In general, fire departments across the state, from Long Island to Plattsburgh to Buffalo, are having a difficult time recruiting new members and retaining existing members,” he said of volunteer outfits.

D’Alessandro added: “It's a complex, intertwined problem, in that you can have two departments side by side, and one is doing OK in terms of personnel and the department right next door is having issues.”

In the early 2000s, the association estimated there were about 120,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, compared with about 80,000 today, D’Alessandro said. 

Jackie Bray, commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, told Newsday 76% of the more than 1,600 volunteer fire departments statewide reported a decline in volunteers in the last few years — combined with a 29% increase in calls. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul has included measures in her 2023 budget proposal for a stipend fund to help cover the costs of training for volunteer firefighters, and to open up the firefighter volunteer benefit law to allow communities to offer “modest compensation” to volunteers.

There are three main problems departments are facing, D'Alessandro said, including the lack of time people have for volunteering on top of work and family commitments.

He said other reasons are that people believe they lack the required skill set and that they're accustomed to trying to avoid emergencies than rush toward them.

But D'Alessandro said there's more to volunteering than pulling hoses into burning buildings.

"For instance, if you don't want to be a front line firefighter, but you're a bookkeeper, we'll take that skill set," he said.  

“Anybody can be a firefighter, big, small, male, female, green, blue, purple, it doesn't matter … We will train you … All you need is the commitment and dedication to learn those skills, and be there when your community needs you,” D’Alessandro said.

Michael Marra's father, Bob, who started volunteering at 18 for West Sayville's department and now is 76, said he doesn’t jump out for calls as much as he once did. But he said there’s a satisfaction that comes with helping his community.

“I think there's a place for almost everyone in the volunteer service here on Long Island,” he added.

Volunteering for the fire service in West Sayville is a tradition that spans three generations in the Marra family — members of a department officials say is thriving as many volunteer outfits like it across New York are struggling to attract members.

“I grew up with it," said volunteer firefighter Michael Marra, 49, of Oakdale, who recalled following his father into the service before his own two sons did the same years later.

"Always going and chasing fires with him in the car … going up to the firehouse on Sunday mornings when he was having coffee and I’d be running around the firehouse. I joined the juniors when I was 8, and I’ve been involved since,” Marra told Newsday.

West Sayville's chiefs say that tradition of legacy volunteers, with family members following each other into the service, is part of what makes the West Sayville Fire Department stand out from struggling departments because it helps in recruiting and retaining members.

But those at the helm of the department, which was founded in 1891, say its success also is because of its strong culture.

Volunteer firefighter Spencer Gray, 20, center, gears up alongside his...

Volunteer firefighter Spencer Gray, 20, center, gears up alongside his father Todd, left, and brother Logan, 17, right, at the West Sayville Fire Department recently. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

A juniors program starts training potential volunteers at the age of 8.

The department works to accommodate extended leaves from members who temporarily move away for college, and the success of the department's drill racing team also has inspired many volunteers to join, officials say.

The department has 124 active members that cover West Sayville and Oakdale, a territory of 5.9 square miles. It has seven pieces of apparatus and two stations, with volunteers responding to roughly 450 calls per year. 

A strong legacy tradition like the one at West Sayville is “positive, but not the norm,” said John D’Alessandro, association secretary for the Firefighters Association of the State of New York — a nonprofit that educates and supports volunteer firefighters.

“In general, fire departments across the state, from Long Island to Plattsburgh to Buffalo, are having a difficult time recruiting new members and retaining existing members,” he said of volunteer outfits.

D’Alessandro added: “It's a complex, intertwined problem, in that you can have two departments side by side, and one is doing OK in terms of personnel and the department right next door is having issues.”

In the early 2000s, the association estimated there were about 120,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, compared with about 80,000 today, D’Alessandro said. 

Jackie Bray, commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, told Newsday 76% of the more than 1,600 volunteer fire departments statewide reported a decline in volunteers in the last few years — combined with a 29% increase in calls. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul has included measures in her 2023 budget proposal for a stipend fund to help cover the costs of training for volunteer firefighters, and to open up the firefighter volunteer benefit law to allow communities to offer “modest compensation” to volunteers.

There are three main problems departments are facing, D'Alessandro said, including the lack of time people have for volunteering on top of work and family commitments.

He said other reasons are that people believe they lack the required skill set and that they're accustomed to trying to avoid emergencies than rush toward them.

But D'Alessandro said there's more to volunteering than pulling hoses into burning buildings.

"For instance, if you don't want to be a front line firefighter, but you're a bookkeeper, we'll take that skill set," he said.  

“Anybody can be a firefighter, big, small, male, female, green, blue, purple, it doesn't matter … We will train you … All you need is the commitment and dedication to learn those skills, and be there when your community needs you,” D’Alessandro said.

Michael Marra's father, Bob, who started volunteering at 18 for West Sayville's department and now is 76, said he doesn’t jump out for calls as much as he once did. But he said there’s a satisfaction that comes with helping his community.

“I think there's a place for almost everyone in the volunteer service here on Long Island,” he added.

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