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Volunteer firefighting requires extensive commitment to keep membership at optimum level

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WATERTOWN — Even as call volumes remain the same as they were at the town of Watertown fire station, the number of volunteer firefighters has drastically fallen.

Just five years ago, in 2017, the department had 68 total firefighters. Fast forward to today, and those numbers have dropped by close to 50%.

For the previous six years, the average number of calls that the town of Watertown Fire Department responded to each month has remained about the same, with the lowest number of calls coming in 2020 with about 48 calls per month and the highest coming in 2017 with about 56 calls per month.

In Adams, its department’s numbers have stayed pretty consistent, with around 60 members in the department, according to Robert D. Simpson, information officer with the Adams Fire Department. He said about half of those people are interior firefighters qualified to go into a burning building.

Mr. Simpson said a big part of the department’s recruitment is its junior firefighter program, which he says began in the late 1970s or early 1980s and has resulted in 21 current members of the department.

Having a junior firefighter program isn’t unique to Adams Fire Department; the town of Watertown also has its own, which has seen individuals such as Josh B. Wilcox graduate from the junior program and become a firefighter in the department. Both of his parents have been members of the Watertown department and his grandfather served as the assistant chief.

“This is like a second home for me as a kid,” Mr. Wilcox said. “This was the place where I would rather spend my time as a kid than being at home … My wife would agree that’s probably still true today.”

According to the United States Fire Administration, only four U.S. states have a higher percentage of volunteer fire departments than New York state. In New York state, 90.2% of all fire departments are volunteer, with only West Virginia (90.6%), South Dakota (91.8%), Nebraska (92.1%), and North Dakota (92.3%) having a higher percentage. In Jefferson County, there are a total of 43 fire departments, including Fort Drum’s Fire Department. Of those 43 departments, 41, or around 95%, are either fully staffed by volunteers or mostly staffed by volunteers.

“We’re all adrenaline junkies,” said town of Watertown fire district manager Fred J. Sourwine. “I think for me, and I don’t want to sound self-serving here, but I wanted the community to be able to look at me and say, ‘Hey that’s a guy that I can go to and he’ll help in the worst time of my life.’… You go to a fire call, you’re going to potentially that person’s worst point in their life; they’re literally standing in front of their house, watching their stuff burn, and if you can be that person that takes a little bit of that burden or pain away, that’s a big thing.”

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