In recent years, volunteer fire departments across Long Island have struggled to maintain their active membership roles. As longtime firefighters retire from service, departments traditionally look to the next generation to fill the void. But finding young volunteers can be a challenge, particularly in places like the East End, where jobs are limited and cost of living is high. Young people who might otherwise fill the fire department’s ranks often can’t afford to stay in the area after high school or college.
Compared to other districts on Long Island, Sag Harbor’s fire department is very fortunate — participation has always been strong. But still, Sag Harbor volunteer firefighter and former chief Pete Garypie has seen districts where retention is a problem.
“We have a strong department, there’s not a problem with membership,” said Garypie. “But it’s still tough. In Nassau and western Suffolk they’re [volunteer firefighters] all going to the city to work and don’t have the help they need.”
Garypie joined the department when he turned 18, and has long envisioned a juniors program for Sag Harbor – one that encourages teens to get involved with the fire department before they can officially join as volunteers.
“The idea had been tossed about for years, including when I was chief a couple years ago,” said Garypie. “The objective is to give the kids something to do rather than hang on the street or get in trouble. It’s a way to give back to the community.”
Last November, 10 Pierson High School students (nine boys, one girl) signed on as the first members of Sag Harbor Fire Department’s Junior Department for teens between age 14 and 18. The juniors gather monthly for a meeting and training night and as they learn about firefighting, the hope is they will be encouraged to join the department when they turn 18.
“The biggest thing for us is recouping through retention,” says Garypie, lead advisor of the junior department. “They join the juniors and have a great idea of what is expected of them as firefighters. Obviously we can’t have them take our position at a real alarm, for safety reasons, but we will do department drills in the future and try to incorporate some of those.”
This Friday, August 28, the juniors host an outdoor family movie night screening of “Shrek” at Havens Beach as their first fundraiser. Proceeds will be used to purchase uniforms and equipment for the members.
The juniors have already taken part in a simulation at the fire training facility in East Hampton. The drill involved donning respiratory gear and going into a house filled with artificial smoke to locate a victim (a doll) and bring it to safety.
“It’s a real house inside a warehouse,” explained junior department member Frank Romeo, 16. “At first, it’s nerve wracking, then you get over it.”
“I accidentally hit the baby under the bed with an ax,” admitted 15 year old Ricky Grigonis with a grin.
Though the drills simulate real life, Garypie explains that the juniors program is not just about giving teens a taste of what it’s like to be a firefigther — it’s also a practical way to get much of the curriculum under their belt before they’re old enough to officially fight fires.
“When you join, you have about 20 classroom and 10 hands-on classes,” explained Garypie. “It’s a big commitment to make with a family and work. What they offer now to juniors is the classroom part. As long as they pass the courses, once they’re 18, they join and just have their hands-on training to do.”
Most of the teens in the program are related to someone in the department. But Garypie is hopeful that once school starts again, more students will learn about the program through school guidance counselors or friends and sign up.
“I was always into firefighting since I was a kid,” said Romeo, one of the few juniors who does not have a relative in the fire department. He likes the fact he can get the classroom training out of the way before turning 18. Like Romeo, most of the juniors expressed an interest in joining the department, perhaps after college. In the meantime, the teens are learning about the camaraderie and the teamwork that is vital for a fire department.
“They showed us the trucks like we were one of them,” said Romeo. “They treat us really good. Participation here is unbelievable – all of them are great.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” said 15 year old Melanie Stafford. “And I’m learning a lot.”
“Shrek” at Haven’s Beach in Sag Harbor begins at dusk on Friday, August 28. Gates open at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 adults/$5 children under 10. Call 725-0252 for information. Proceeds benefit the Sag Harbor Fire Department’s Junior Department.