Rochester firefighter and EMT David Wood, left, runs through a search-and-rescue drill Jan. 12 with firefighters Adam Semaan, center, and Sean Frontiera, right, before they enter a training tower at the municipal fire training center — a reuse of the property that at one time was the city’s waste plant — on Letica Drive.

Rochester firefighter and EMT David Wood, left, runs through a search-and-rescue drill Jan. 12 with firefighters Adam Semaan, center, and Sean Frontiera, right, before they enter a training tower at the municipal fire training center — a reuse of the property that at one time was the city’s waste plant — on Letica Drive.

Photo by Sarah Purlee

Volunteer firefighters on the decline in Rochester

City forms committee to explore efficiency of Rochester Fire Department

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published January 17, 2018

ROCHESTER — The Rochester Fire Department, like many volunteer fire departments across the nation, is struggling to attract volunteer firefighters.

“In the last few years, we have seen a decline in people signing up,” Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said. “I went from about 48 paid on-call firefighters to 38 — so I’m down about 10.”

Two major challenges, he said, are time and location.

“Families are two-income families, so they don’t always have the time to dedicate to be a volunteer. Yes, we pay them, but they have 240 hours of training to be a firefighter and 180 hours to be an EMT. And all of the rules and regulations from the state and federal government continue to increase, in regards to refresher training. It really is a huge commitment for people,” he said. 

When Cieslik first joined the department in 1975, volunteers who didn’t live within a mile and a half of the station lived too far away. Today, he said, that standard just isn’t possible. 

“The average right now is a little more than 3 miles,” Cieslik explained. “But we have had to go up to now 5 miles to go ahead and maintain firefighters to be able to respond.”

Part of the issue is that in the past, most volunteer firefighters had jobs within the city — working at the local manufacturing plants, which offered full-time jobs with benefits and allowed employees to leave work to fight fires.  

“If you think about Rochester years ago, we used to have a lot of manufacturing jobs around,” Cieslik said. “Rochester now has kind of transitioned from those jobs into more of a white-collar community, and those folks typically don’t have a lot of time, because of their primary jobs, to get involved with being a volunteer firefighter.”

The result, he said, is a shortage of staff during the daytime. 

“We have four full-time firefighter paramedics and myself — that’s the only full-time staff that we have. There is always one full-time firefighter paramedic on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But that is only one,” Cieslik said. “During the daytime, we are very short, so we have shifts that the paid on-calls sign up for and work. Then after 5 p.m., we just go with the full volunteer group.”

With limited staff, Cieslik said, response times are a concern. According to standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, volunteer fire departments in urban areas greater than 1,000 people per square mile should have at least 15 people at a fire emergency within nine minutes approximately 90 percent of the time.

“We just can’t meet that because of where our firefighters are coming from,” he said. “Our current response time is between 11 and 12 minutes, (and the number of firefighters) could vary between six and 14. That’s the problem with being paid on-call. We really never know how many people are available.”

While the number of firefighters is on the decline, the Rochester Fire Department is increasingly being called upon because of a surge in demand — due, in large part, to the aging population. When Cieslik became fire chief in 2008, the department responded to approximately 520 calls per year, a figure that more than tripled in 2017, with over 1,900 calls for service. 

“The senior population is getting older in Rochester, and it is expected to double by 2025. That typically means more calls for service,” he said. “And we are an old, historic community, so a lot of the buildings that were built in Rochester are 50 or 40 years old, so they weren’t built with all of the greatest fire codes.”

But what does this all mean for the future of the Fire Department? That’s something the city’s new ad hoc Fire Study Committee hopes to uncover.

In October, the City Council formed the Fire Study Committee and tasked it with reviewing the Fire Department as it is now and providing recommendations on options that would provide “forward thinking and planning to ensure the continued safety and protection of residents, businesses and everyone who visits Rochester,” states a memo included in an agenda packet from City Manager Blaine Wing to the City Council about the creation of the committee and its purpose. 

City officials said the committee will explore response times to fires, the challenges and benefits of a paid on-call department, the department’s equipment, its vehicles, and more.

“This (is) an ad hoc committee to do what, at this time, I think is a good best practice,” Wing said. “Every business periodically looks at itself and its operations and delivery.”

The Fire Study Committee — which includes Cieslik, Wing, Mayor Rob Ray, and resident volunteers Terry Crockatt and Valerie Gaton — plans to report its findings to the council by April 1. 

“The most important thing is, we are trying to stay ahead of any issues or problems,” Cieslik said. “In other words, we are OK now. We could always get better — and that is one of the things that we will look at — but we are dealing with this in a proactive approach instead of a reactive approach. To me, being the fire chief, that is the most important thing. We want to take care of the problem before there is one, and that is really what this ad hoc committee is.”

Cieslik has personally been working on gathering information for the last six months.

“Any good business needs to take a look every once in a while at the services it is providing, how we are providing them, the quality of providing, and are we meeting the expectation of our customers, or in this case the residents,” he said. “We are trying to take a look at the Fire Department and make sure that we are delivering the services that the residents of Rochester need.”

Whatever the council decides, Cieslik said, it will need to make sure the solution works for the long haul. 

“In other words, if we are going to continue to be a paid on-call Fire Department, will we be able to have paid on-call firefighters into the future? If we become more of a combination fire department, will we have money to pay for it into the future? That is one of the important things, too; the tax base. You look at development not always as good, but sometimes development brings additional tax dollars that helps fix problems. Bigger people than I have to make those decisions, but my job will be to make sure that we get the facts put forward so that council has options to be able to choose from.” 

The Rochester Fire Department is located at 277 E. Second St. in Rochester. For more information or to learn how to become a paid on-call volunteer firefighter, call (248) 651-4470.