Ithaca College documentary follows volunteer firefighters

WETM Special Reports

ELMIRA, NY. (WETM) – Fires can happen in an instant and completely destroy lives. Before that can happen, we rely on firefights to protect and serve us. Many firefighters in the region are volunteers and there is a shortage of them. Justin tyler and two of his other colleagues saw this and made a mini-documentary while studying at Ithaca college to height this issue.

“This was part of the journalism program at Ithaca College,” Tyler explains. “You have to do basically a long-form senior piece. We decided to do a documentary.

One of the best characters in their story was Chief Doug Keefe who runs the Speedsville Fire department.

“If you don’t help us we won’t be here short and sweet, we can’t survive,” Chief Keefe explained.

“I’m 65-years-old how much longer do you think I’m going to do this?” asked Chief Keefe.

Many of the volunteers are older adults and it’s hard for them to retire without new volunteers to step into their positions.

“Most of us are in our 60’s even 70’s, we’ve got guys in our 70s, how much can I ask them physically to do?” Keefe asked.

Chief Keefe is worried that the public doesn’t understand just how serious this issue is.

“You know, it’s the reality of the situation and the severity, I don’t think people understand the severity of it right now” Chief Keefe.

Tyler points out that staffing issues stem from recruitment and that smaller towns are hit the worst.

“There is not as robust recruitment, there is this severe in numbers issue and like I said the small rural towns, the smaller it is the worst it gets.”

In West Elmira recruitment has taken a hit and it shows. West Elmira Volunteer Fire Fighter, Ronald McConnell has been volunteering at the station for fourty-years and he has seen the decline with his own eyes.

“I started in 1979,” explained McConnell. “What has changed the most is the number of people volunteering and it’s not only in this department, I think it’s all the departments in the county and all through the state.”

Firefighter and Junior Supervisor David DuBois have been attacking this problem by getting kids involved at an earlier age.

“I think for the best recruitment you’ve got to start with the youth, typically in the schools and stuff like that, you’ve got to recruit the kids,” DuBois explains. “Typically firefighting is a generational thing, my father was a firefighter but you kind of aren’t seeing that as much anymore and a lot of the firefighters right now are pretty young. So you got to start with the junior programs and with the schools and stuff like that.”

Katie Johns is one of his junior recruits. She is the secretary of the junior program and is happy to be a part of the team. Johns has her sights set with a future in firefighting.

“I had a guy tell me that firefighting was the most addictive job he had ever done and I was like I want to be addicted to something that’s fun, you know so this just seemed like a really great opportunity if I wanted to be a firefighter,” Johns tells me with a twinkle in her eye. “I feel like I have a lot of purposes right now, like, school is hard and it’s nice to know that at least once a week I have somewhere to go where it might be difficult but I’m having fun and I have something to aim for in my life.”

But recruiting at an earlier age isn’t the only fix. Time seems to be one of the most difficult obstacles young adults face when trying to volunteer.

Lt. Alix Gresov a Trumansburg Volunteer fire department explains in the documentary the struggle she faces when getting a call.

“It’s hard to make yourself come sometimes when you know that you’re not being compensated for it, you know when you’re leaving the dinner table, when you’re in the middle of a project at home and you can’t clean up really fast and just ditch what you’re doing so a lot of people have a tough time committing,” said Lt. Gresov.

To watch the full documentary click this link:

The Slow Burn: A Volunteer’s Call to Duty.

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