By Stephen J. Kotz
A successful volunteer fire department, much like a successful high school varsity basketball team, depends on a steady influx of new talent. While a basketball team relies on bringing up members from its junior varsity squad, fire departments have found that establishing junior programs is a good way to encourage kids to give volunteerism a try.
Such is the case in Sag Harbor, where the department’s junior program has grown to 22 members, up from about a half dozen just two years ago.
And if you think participants are only there to clean up after department pancake breakfasts, think again. Junior members attend the department’s regular Friday night drills, where they get to try on air packs and train in smoke-filled rooms, learn how to handle hoses and ladders, take a turn dousing controlled burns, use department radios and, under the watchful eye of club advisers, use equipment like the Jaws of Life. “Half of the department has never touched those tools,” said Nick Mazzeo, who coordinates the program along with Chief Bruce Schiavoni.
The Sag Harbor junior program was established in 2008 as the department, like others on the East End, began to look for ways to encourage young people to become active in what is likely the community’s largest volunteer association.
When Mr. Mazzeo and Chief Schiavoni took over, they wanted to increase the size of the program. “The first thing we did is open up the program to allow a younger group of kids, 12 to 14, in,” said Mr. Mazzeo. Formerly, the program was only open to those 14 to 18, he said.
Just because they are younger doesn’t mean they don’t participate. They do everything the older kids do,” said Mr. Mazzeo. “We haven’t held them back.”
To expand the membership, the two mentors reached out to the Sag Harbor School District to let students know the program existed and their participation would be welcomed. “I’d say making it known that it wasn’t just for the children of fire department members was a big help,” said Mr. Schiavoni.
Mr. Mazzeo noted that of the 22 current members, 13 don’t have family ties to the department. “That proves the word is getting out there,” said Chief Schiavoni.
The juniors hold a group meeting led by their captain, Patrick Lucyk, once a month. “It’s brought all these kids together,” Mr. Mazzeo said. “At first, they barely knew each other, they barely talked. Now they don’t shut up.”
“They’ve become tight; they know they have to rely on each other said,” Chief Schiavoni. “They know they have to work with one another, whether it’s holding a ladder or backing up a hose line.”
Patrick, a Pierson senior, whose parents, Ed and Rachel, are involved in the department, said his dream is to become a member of the Fire Department of New York. He plans to attend the University of New Haven in Connecticut to study fire science to help him prepare for that career.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a firefighter,” he said. The junior program has only whetted his appetite. “Being able to do some of the firematic stuff has been great,” he said of the hands-on training.
Just as the main department raises funds for a variety causes, the juniors do their own fundraising, including by helping out at pancake breakfasts and the department’s annual carnival. “They’ve made donations to the burn center and last year they made a donation to the fireboat in Greenport,” Mr. Mazzeo said.
Students who participate qualify for community service, and Chief Schiavoni said department officers often write letters of recommendations when junior members apply to college. “It’s the least we can do,” he said.
The junior program is run through the Boy Scouts of America Explorer program, with the older members serving in Explorer Post 1803 (the year the department was established) and the younger members serving in Club 725 (after the village telephone prefix).
Besides Mr. Mazzeo and Chief Schiavoni, about 16 other department members serve as the junior program’s mentors, meaning there is always an experienced member or two around to assure safety.