New York

NY fire department bucks recruitment decline trend with unique volunteer program

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Like many volunteer fire departments around the country, the Monsey Volunteer Fire Department in Rockland County needed a lifeline.

“We were struggling a few years ago,” says spokesman Aaron Lerer, a veteran firefighter. “We knew we had to get creative to attract and keep new members.”

The biggest challenge: working around the restriction that doesn’t allow firefighters who have beards to go inside buildings. Facial hair can prevent air supply masks from properly sealing. Lerer says they started an external firefighting program that allows the volunteers to perform every task except inside entry. The members are increasingly reflective of the community where the number of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews is skyrocketing. Monsey now has more members than ever before; seven are external firefighters.

Yitzi Grunwald was the pioneer for that program. He started four years ago.

“I would really like to go inside but I know I won’t be able to because of my religious belief,” he told the I-Team. He says the support they provide to the internal team is invaluable, and their connection is critical in bridging the gap with residents who speak Yiddish rather than English.

“I’ve gotten a lot of times where they say, ‘Oh, we didn’t realize there were Orthodox Jews in the program.’ They seem appreciative that we can understand them," says Mendy Friedman.

The department built a brand new bunk room to encourage members to stay at the firehouse and bought ten rapid response vehicles with lights and sirens which firefighters can sign out.

“When members sign them out, they’re committing to respond to any call,” says Chief High Jacobson. He adds the vehicles have shaved minutes off response times in highly congested neighborhoods.

Monsey is so unique the department is one of five in the country featured in a documentary about the volunteer fire service called: “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat,” distributed by Sub-Genre Media. Several screenings are scheduled in New York City starting the first week in July.

“We’re challenging the traditional stereotype of how the public pictures firefighters. Now, it’s people I go to synagogue with, people that sit next to me on a bench," Says firefighter Sam Hoffman.

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