Emmy-nominated PSA highlights volunteer firefighter shortage

Fire service leaders say finding dedicated volunteers, particularly young people, has been getting harder over the past several years


Jesse Leavenworth
The Hartford Courant

A public service announcement that spotlights the shortage of volunteer firefighters in Connecticut is up for an Emmy award.

Shot by professional cinematographer and Hebron volunteer firefighter Matthew Troy, “See You Out There” features 85 volunteers from 16 departments across the state. The regional Emmy awards are to be presented on June 15 in Boston.

Shot by professional cinematographer and Hebron volunteer firefighter Matthew Troy, “See You Out There” features 85 volunteers from 16 departments across the state. The regional Emmy awards are to be presented on June 15 in Boston. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Shot by professional cinematographer and Hebron volunteer firefighter Matthew Troy, “See You Out There” features 85 volunteers from 16 departments across the state. The regional Emmy awards are to be presented on June 15 in Boston. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Troy’s spot, done in 30-, 60- and 90-second versions, emphasizes pride in service, the wide range of day jobs that volunteers hold and the variety of tasks they perform during emergencies. Firefighters are shown battling a blaze, peeling the roof from a crashed car and rushing to water and forest rescues.

The scenes, all of which were staged, were shot over three days as part of the Everyday Hero CT recruitment campaign. A Hebron native and New York City-based cinematographer who does mostly commercial work, Troy said the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs hired him using a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association.

Troy, 31, now lives in Fairfield, but said he goes back to Hebron every month for about 40 hours to fill EMT shifts and complete training with his fellow volunteers.

Fire service leaders say finding such dedicated volunteers, particularly young people, has been getting harder over the past several years.

“We’re starting to feel the pinch,” South Windsor Fire Chief Kevin Cooney said.

Connecticut has more than 300 fire departments staffed by about 26,000 firefighters, 83 percent of whom are volunteers. They can be called on 24/7 to enter burning buildings, rescue stranded hikers, extricate car crash victims and provide emergency medical services.

Most departments in the state are experiencing a volunteer shortage, fire service leaders say. Fire chiefs say they need volunteers of all skill levels and abilities, people willing and able to respond to emergencies and support personnel such as fire police and administrative assistants.

To keep and attract volunteers, the South Windsor department offers incentives that include a tax break, a “length of service award” that typically pays $200 to $300 a month to retired firefighters and a payment of $8 for each emergency call. The department now requires firefighters to live in town, but leaders are considering opening the service to non-residents, Cooney said.

Some volunteer departments already accept out-of-towners and others allow students to live in fire stations in return for service, retired Killingworth Fire Chief Fred Dudek said. A volunteer firefighter for 45 years, Dudek manages the Everyday Hero CT recruitment program, the organization behind Troy’s PSA.

Across the state, the shortage of volunteers has not reached a critical point, but some departments “are on the edge,” Dudek said. Twenty years ago, 30 percent of volunteers over age 40 had 10 years or more of service. That figure is now about 42 percent, an indication that older volunteers are hanging on, but not enough young replacements are signing up, Dudek said.

One problem is that many young people cannot afford to live in some towns with volunteer departments, he said. Another factor is the fast pace of modern life and all the other tasks and attractions that capture people’s attention, Dudek said.

Rocky Hill’s department has had a recruitment and retention officer for about five years, staff Capt. Frank Kelley said. Active membership has been shrinking for about six years, and the time when many firefighters were in the service for 20-30 years appears to be past, Kelley said.

But there is hope. More women have been applying to become firefighters and two immigrants from India, part of the town’s growing population from that country, recently joined the ranks, Kelley said.

“If you’re willing to jump into a pair of boots and volunteer for your hometown, we don’t care who you are,” he said. “It’s truly a family.”

The Everyday Hero CT spot ends with a plea:

“So, what are you waiting for? Are you ready to make a difference? Are you ready to join our team? Your community needs you. We need you.”

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©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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