Challenges and Benefits of Combination Fire Departments

By WBNG News

July 22, 2010 Updated Nov 18, 2009 at 7:16 PM EDT

Johnson City is looking at a combination fire department to help control costs.

The force would include paid and volunteer firefighters.

Action News Reporter Caitlin Nuclo sat down with two area chiefs who run blended departments.

They say the mix comes with both benefits and challenges.

When an emergency strikes in the City of Cortland or Ithaca.

A crew of both paid and volunteer firefighters respond.

"The career firefighters here are responsible to get out and begin initial attack and they know that we need volunteer hands in order to have enough hands to get the work done," said Cortland Chief Dennis Baron.

The work that volunteers do can come at a cheaper cost.

Though Baron warns, they are not free.

Cortland outfits volunteers with necessary equipment and training.

Which he says is an investment up front.

"That has to be part of the planning. Another thing that has to be part of the planning is making sure they have time to grow, get the training get them polished and then work them into the system," says Baron.

The City of Cortland has 35 paid firefighters and about 50 volunteers.

The chief says it works in this community because the volunteers compliment and support the paid staff.

But it does have some disadvantages.

"Volunteers do a great job but there is no substitute for having a well-trained career professional firefighter who is on duty and that is their responsibility," said Ithaca Acting Fire Chief Thomas Dorman.

The City of Ithaca is phasing out its combined force.

Since funding for training has been cut, only 3 volunteers remain.

Now, the department is fueled by more than 60 paid firefighters.

"I will be the first to tell you that having an all career fire department is a better solution however I realize some communities cannot afford that."

And for communities like Johnson City, a combination force is an option, for a village seeking ways to provide fire protection, and keep costs under control.

Cortland Chief Baron says combination forces are a good way to add growth to a department, without imposing a huge burden on taxpayers.

Baron adds departments have to focus on recruitment and retention to run a successful blended force.

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