Thirty University employees volunteer for the Princeton Fire Department during daytime hours. This support, however, is not enough to rescue the fire department from a dwindling volunteer network.
For the first time since its creation in 1788, the Princeton Fire Department is considering transitioning from an all-volunteer department to a combination of volunteers and paid employees.
According to Director of Emergency and Safety Services Bob Gregory, the fire department has been struggling to recruit volunteers.
In 2013, the fire department had 65 active members. The number has decreased to 22 active members today, Gregory said.
Even with a University volunteer and a with the University that allows employees to go through initial training and respond to calls during work hours, the fire department has had a decreasing amount of volunteers. But, according to Gregory, this problem has appeared in fire departments across the nation.
“We have noticed that just like everyone else in New Jersey and across the country, it’s been more and more difficult to recruit,” Gregory said.
Gregory cites many reasons that volunteer numbers have decreased, such as the changing demographics of the town of Princeton.
For instance, the town now has many more two-income families, and many people commute into New York City for jobs and do not have the time to commit to volunteering.
The biggest challenge that the fire department encounters is recruiting volunteers certified to drive fire trucks.
“People get frustrated with responding to calls but not being able to get out of the door because there’s no driver,” said Gregory, explaining that several full-time people will need to be hired to drive the fire trucks.
The fire department also has a plan in place to find more volunteers to fight fires.
“We’re looking at hiring a recruiting company to work with us to get a better idea of who out of the 31,000 in Princeton fits the model of a person who would volunteer,” Gregory said.
The presidents of the three fire companies, the three fire chiefs, the town administrator, and Gregory are working together on a committee to solve the problem of the dwindling volunteer network.
“We’re working together as a group to first and foremost get the recruiting drive going, make sure we have good incentives in place, and then we’ll have to make a decision on whether we’re going to hire some drivers to help us fill the gap,” Gregory explained.
For instance, the fire department actively recruits at the University.
Robert Liu ’20, the only student who volunteers for the fire department, found out about the opportunity to volunteer when firefighters recruited him during the activities fair in the fall of his first year.
“I decided it would be fantastic to do public service for the community,” Liu explained.
Volunteers first go through fire school, a semester-long program that requires trainees to spend three nights per week in a classroom.
Liu described the training as a large time commitment, especially since he had a five-course schedule as a B.S.E. student.
However, the training process was worth it, according to Liu.
“The training that we get to do is really interesting,” he said. “It teaches you to look at the world a different way.”
After they pass a state exam, volunteers must respond to at least 15 percent of calls and spend three nights a month in the firehouse.
When it is his turn to work the overnight shift, Liu brings his work to the station and answers any calls that come in.
“It’s great to get out of the orange bubble and ... help people,” he explained.
Volunteers such as Liu enjoy their experience with the fire department and encourage others to get involved.
“It’s a very important task,” Liu said of volunteering. “It’s tough, but it’s rewarding.”
If University students or employees are interested in volunteering, they should contact Robert Gregory at 609-497-7637 for more information.