Xuefei Xia visited the Syosset Volunteer Fire Department open house Saturday so his 4-year-old son could check out the fire engines. While a beaming Vincent Xia climbed into the passenger seat of a big red firetruck, firefighter Mike Shi chatted with his father in their native Mandarin about volunteering.
Xia, 32, gave the department his email and phone number, so officials can keep in touch until he’s ready to volunteer — likely after Vincent and his 2-month-old daughter are a few years older. Vincent went home with a yellow rubber ducky “firefighter,” a fire department Frisbee and memories of sitting inside a firetruck — which the department hopes helps cultivate an interest in firefighting.
The Syosset station’s open house was part of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s annual RecruitNY weekend — an effort to boost the number of volunteer firefighters.
The association created the event in 2011 to help reverse the declining number of volunteer firefighters. The number fell from its 120,000 peak in the early 1990s to the low 80,000s by the mid-2000s.
There are now about 105,000, but that’s not enough to keep up with the growing number of calls, many of them from increasingly common automatic fire alarms, said Steven Klein, first vice president of the association and a former Oceanside fire chief.
The Central Islip Department reversed years of declining numbers when it ramped up its recruitment campaign three years ago by hosting open houses and making presentations at Central Islip High School, where the free tuition for firefighters at Suffolk County Community College is a big selling point.
“If you don’t make it an all-in approach, the numbers are going to go down,” said Chris Portelli, first assistant chief in Central Islip.
Louis Viera, 47, of Central Islip, had long thought about volunteering and picked up an application at the open house after hearing about it on television.
“I want to give time to my community, and I’m an adrenaline junkie and will fit right in,” he said. “I’ve got no fear.”
Johnathan Martinez, 22, of Central Islip, joined the department a year ago after a friend who had been recruited at a high school event encouraged him to apply. Like many other new Central Islip firefighters, he speaks Spanish, which is invaluable for helping non-English-speaking residents in emergencies, he said.
In Syosset, many new volunteers are in the 40s and 50s, joining after their children get older and they have more time, said Robert Leonard, an ex-captain in Syosset. Some hadn’t realized that all Syosset firefighters are volunteers, he said. Firefighters must be at least 18, with no upper age limit as long as the recruit can physically perform firefighting duties.
Don Hardina, 48, said he planned to join once he was less busy helping lead a kids’ baseball league.
Son Joseph Hardina, 15, applied to join Syosset’s junior firefighters on Saturday.
A fire that destroyed his dad’s van two weeks ago spurred him to volunteer. Firefighters quickly arrived on the windy night and prevented the blaze from spreading to their home and neighbors’ houses.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What if I were able to be there helping my dad?’ ” Joseph Hardina said.