Highland FD considers ‘Bunk-in’ program for recruits

By Ella Connors
Posted 6/19/24

Commissioners of the Highland Fire District, concerned about a potential shortage of first responders in the near future, are considering an option that’s catching on elsewhere: free room and …

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Highland FD considers ‘Bunk-in’ program for recruits


Commissioners of the Highland Fire District, concerned about a potential shortage of first responders in the near future, are considering an option that’s catching on elsewhere: free room and board for college students who join the fire department.

Known as the bunk-in program, it is becoming popular throughout the state.

The program, according to the New York State Conference of Mayors, has been around since the mid-1990s. In Onondaga County, where the local community college offers an associate degree program in Fire Protection Technology, students are eligible to apply for internships as bunk-ins with local host fire departments.

Being a bunk-in provides a unique community-service opportunity to serve as a volunteer firefighter. In return, the fire department provides living accommodations. Bunk-ins live at the firehouse, attend classes and respond to emergency calls with the host fire department. The fire department gains volunteers who are active and involved and can be available at times when other volunteers cannot, such as daytime and heavy commuting hours. The man hours they provide are invaluable to volunteer organizations. This program affords the students real-time application of the things that they are learning in the classroom. They handle the equipment, maintain apparatus, interact with the community, work as a team with department members, follow the rules and regulations, and respond to calls.

But critics say the program moves the volunteer fire department one step closer to a paid service, and that has some residents concerned. An unveiling of the program was met with a mix of support and criticism from Highland residents, last week at the Tuesday night fire district meeting in Highland.

Kevin Rizzo, a member of the Bunk-In committee and a commissioner for the fire district, gave the presentation detailing the program, answering some questions and providing an overview for those attending the meeting. As a committee, now made up of five people, they traveled to four departments in western New York with bunk-in programs — Solvay Fire, Myers Corners, Elsmere and Fayetteville. The trip allowed them to decide what aspects of their arrangements they believed would work for their own department, as well as what they thought would not fit their needs.

“You’re increasing our service, the service that we provide to the community,” Rizzo said. “It is just one tier of a multi-approached attack to recruit members, to retain members, to attract new members and to keep the volunteer fire service alive.”

The Highland department is increasingly getting older, Rizzo said. Most of their members are in the 30-40 age range, but inactive members fall primarily between 21 and 39. He said that this means that although their department is healthy now, it could be in trouble in the future, pushing forth their need to expand recruitment and retention programs.

Each of the four departments they visited had different programs — the only similarity between them all was that they had a specific place for the bunk-in to lodge. Solvay Fire and Myers Corners provided more of a base model for Highland, with Rizzo adding that their version of the bunk-in program would be highly structured.
Hailing it as a “symbiotic relationship between the fire district and student,” Rizzo emphasized that the program would provide local college students with a place to stay in exchange for their services to the fire district. They would commute between the district and their college.

“A bunk-in program is just one of many ways to diversify participation,” Rizzo said.

Investments should be minimal after the initial payments for the necessary renovations, Rizzo added. They would have to discuss the cost for living renovations and convert the work-out space into a bunk room. A refrigerator, washing machine and dryer would also have to be installed for those living there.

Chairman Steve DiLorenzo said that due to the program’s innovative quality, he cannot be certain as to what its impact would be just yet. There would be some modifications made, as the idea is still not fully fleshed out.

“Obviously it is something very brand new,” DiLorenzo said. “It is brand new to our county and our whole area. There are no other bunk-in programs around that we are aware of. It is promising if it all comes together.”

Many members of the local community expressed their displeasure with the potential program, for a few different reasons, including what they view as a lack of alternative efforts to promote recruitment that do not require money to be invested into a completely new program.

Town of Lloyd councilman John Fraino questioned how much time it would take for new recruits to actually become active members, especially if they do not have any prior training. The consensus was that it would take a few months if a recruit was joining without any experience.

Robert L. Pardy, a past commissioner for the department, also emphasized a lack of transparency between the fire district and the community, as well as insufficient diversity overall in the department, saying that they do not have any minority representation among members and only one female.

“These guys are in crisis, and I give them credit, at least they understand they are in crisis,” Pardy said. “But they are in crisis because of the culture they have here.”