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Intensified training requirements may be driving a sharp decline in the number of volunteer firefighters and emergency-medical technicians in Essex County.

County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish said Monday that the number of active volunteer firefighters has dropped from 1,400 to about 1,000 in the last few years.

"This could become a crisis."

The county's rural nature means it has many small fire departments that cover large areas, and recruitment pools are smaller.

Jaquish is also an assistant chief for Moriah Fire Department.

"We had one new member in 2008 and one new member so far in 2009," he said. "That can't continue."

The state's basic Firefighter I course is more than 80 hours of training, and many potential volunteers have family responsibilities that don't allow so much time away from home, he said.

"People are not coming forward and joining the fire service. It may be because of the number of hours of training."

In addition, a college-scholarship program for new firefighters has been dropped from the state budget, he said, removing one incentive for young people to join local fire companies.

The County Board of Supervisors is asking Gov. David Paterson to restore the firefighter scholarships.

The state and federal governments continue to pile on instruction requirements, Jaquish said.

"What they don't understand is people have other lives. The training — OSHA training, firefighter training — has gotten too large. They have to reduce the amount of time it takes to train."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires 15 hours of annual training for all firefighters and quarterly training for firefighters who will enter structures.

Supervisor Ronald Jackson (R-Essex), an emergency-medical technician, said the schooling is too much at once for new volunteers.

"They have to go through the whole thing at one time. It's too big a chunk."

More must be done to accommodate rookie volunteers, he said, such as allowing a longer period for the instruction.

Supervisor Randy Preston (I-Wilmington) is an assistant fire chief in Wilmington.

"What the (State) Department of Health has done for requirements for EMTs is really over the top," Preston said. "Very few people in the county are going to be taking EMT anymore. Someone in Albany dreams it up, and they put it out here."

New EMTs need more than 100 hours of schooling, so fewer people are volunteering.

"I guarantee in my lifetime everybody in this county will have paid ambulances," Preston said. "It's going to affect everybody because of the volunteers we're losing."

Fire and ambulance companies in her area are having trouble recruiting new people, Supervisor Joyce Morency (R-St. Armand) said.

"You can't get them (volunteers). They have families, they have children."

She said many classes are held on weekday evenings, when people have responsibilities at home.

Supervisor Daniel Connell (D-Westport) said a volunteer's first year requires completing a lot of training.

"For an EMT, it's critical. In Westport, I don't know how long we're going to be able to run a volunteer EMT squad."

He suggested home courses or Internet-based instruction be implemented whenever possible.

"We're all going to be going to paid departments, and how can we afford that?" Connell said.

Some ambulance squads in the county, like Newcomb, have already gone to paid EMTs for daytime shifts.

By LOHR McKINSTRY
Staff Writer
The Press Republican

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