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Volunteer Westerly firefighters Carl Johnson, kneeling, and Samantha Muller, in full gear, show off some their equipment to visitors as the fire house welcomed children in the Westerly Library Kids Room during a visit to the Westerly Fire Department ahead of Fire Safety Month on Friday. The effort is part of ongoing public awareness to improve fire safety and enhance recruitment. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

When Samantha Muller was walking past the firehouse on Union Street in downtown Westerly at the start of the year amid the COVID-19 outbreak, she said she felt suddenly compelled to walk inside.

The 23-year-old, a 2017 graduate of Wheeler High School , did not have any friends or family in fire services and Muller herself had only moved to Westerly just two weeks earlier. She wanted to find a way to get involved in the community and meet new people, a place where she would feel a sense of belonging and purpose.

What Muller found at the fire department was a group of volunteers that she now calls her family, and opportunities that she said has jumpstarted a career she didn’t previously know she wanted.

“I don’t know what it was that made me walk in that day, but I am very glad I did,” Muller said Sunday. “It has been a better experience than I could have hoped for. Since joining I’ve gotten a sense of family with the people I work with, I’ve gotten to give back to the community and I’ve learned lessons well beyond what it takes to be a firefighter.”

It’s a feeling that fire department’s across the region are hoping others are seeking as they ramp up efforts to recruit new volunteers amid a post-pandemic world filled with an ever-changing set of challenges.

With call volumes from Westerly to North Stonington continuing to reach record highs year over year and COVID-19 taxing resources, former Union Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Quinn said the need is greater than ever.

“There are two stats that I like to use to show the importance of volunteer recruitment in fire services. Volunteer firefighters represent 69% of all firefighters in America, and $48 billion is saved annually over having a professional firefighters in those same roles,” said Quinn, a former president of the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and the first vice chairman and past chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

“For many local fire chiefs, the challenge these days is having to market the department to younger generations,” he said. “That’s a shift from past when there was no need to market for volunteers, and the models to retain these volunteers has changed as well.”

Across the region from North Stonington to Hope Valley, volunteer recruitment and retention has become a growing part of the job for agency leadership. The average age of volunteers in almost every agency continues to get older and fast-paced lifestyles have made it difficult to attract and retain younger recruits.

In North Stonington, Deputy Chief Joe Cassata said the biggest challenge has been filling daytime shifts and attracting new volunteers in a town without much industrial or commercial space. Many who are able to step up are also older, he said, and concerns related to the pandemic have also led some employers to request that their staff consider other options to avoid exposure to the virus.

The department’s volunteers often work full-time, Cassata said, and for most that means traveling out of town or working at locations where they are unable to simply leave if an emergency occurs daytime. The department has recently been able to bolster it’s ranks thanks to the addition of a per diem position — the agency now has two such positions to help assure basic staffing during Monday to Friday day shifts — but needs to find more youth to aid in responses, many which now involve a group of responders ages 30 to 60.

“Right now, one of our top priorities is to try and fill that gap,” Cassata said. “We are fortunate to have a core group of guys who are highly dedicated, but when you see a 70-year-old still taking an active response role in calls, it is time to look at how to get younger.”

Smaller communities including North Stonington, Ashaway and the Richmond-Carolina Fire District have all benefited from mutual aid partnerships as well, allowing the towns to work together to assure all calls are covered and there are plenty of responders on major responses. With volunteer needs growing everywhere, however, Cassata said it is only a matter of time before the region needs to reevaluate the best way to provide such aid if new recruits are not found to revamp volunteer ranks.

Quinn said the challenges are not unique to North Stonington, and are one of the reasons that department’s nationwide are exploring new ways to bring in fresh faces. Whether in big cities or rural communities, volunteer fire departments are shaking up administrative teams and redesigning policies to attract a larger group of participants.

At the Westerly Fire Department, a restructuring in 2020 allowed the department to put responsibilities of recruitment and retention on Capt. Sam Homsi and Capt. Scott Fricke, who were elected to serve in those roles through May 2022. Homsi said this week that in the past year alone, the department has attracted 17 new volunteers including Muller, well exceeding the number that retired or resigned over the same period of time.

Homsi credited the success to targeted efforts and a dedicated community, saying the agency has benefited from use of social media and targeted advertising as well as a good department reputation and tradition of service in bucking the national trend. He said the best tool remains word of mouth, and noted that participation at events has increased presence and allowed the volunteers themselves to tell their stories.

“That has been one of the most effective ways of finding new members,” Homsi said. “When they have an opportunity to tell someone who may be on the fence how becoming a volunteer changed their life, it can provide the motivation needed to convince someone to step forward and volunteer.”

Quinn said volunteer recruitment events such as open houses will remain a top recruitment tool for many agencies throughout the fall, and noted that many departments are likely to piggyback on Fire Prevention Week activities during the first full week of October to both promote fire safety and identify future firefighters in the community.

It’s a technique that the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Department hopes to utilize on Oct. 10 when the agency hosts an open house at the Emergency Services Center, 25 Rocky Hollow Road in North Stonington, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event will include truck and equipment demos, tours of the building and info on how to become a member and serve our community.

Cassata said that for those who don’t want to fight fires or respond to medical calls, there are still a wide range of opportunities such as cooking, organizing or fundraising to be involved.

“We’ve got a job for just about anybody. Our advice is even if there are only a few things you might want to do, come on down and we’ll find a job for you,” he said.

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