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Training access can help gather next generation of firefighters, says John Armato

By Assemblyman John Armato

In my 49 years as a volunteer firefighter, I’ve learned the importance of being prepared.

For obvious reasons, you must come prepared with the right equipment when responding to a fire. You must be prepared to work with your team. You must be prepared to see families in anguish.

These days squads are not, however, prepared to face a crisis that’s right around the corner. Aging firefighters are hanging up their helmets, and there are not enough fresh faces to replace them.

This wasn’t the case when I was growing up. Back then, if a member of your family was a volunteer firefighter, you became one too. I was inspired by my own father to climb that ladder.

Now, I see squads struggling to find new recruits once members retire. Squads are shrinking as a result, making it more difficult for them to do their jobs. If this trend continues, I’m worried volunteer squads will cease to exist.

Volunteer firefighters play a vital role in keeping their communities safe, particularly in rural areas without full-time fire departments. They’re always ready to drop what they’re doing and respond to an emergency, whether it’s during the workday or in the middle of the night.

I want to engage the next generation of volunteer firefighters. I know they’re out there; it’s just a matter of finding them.

The best place to start is to make sure training, where every firefighter’s journey begins, is convenient and accessible. I believe that by allowing certain firefighter training courses to be taken online, we can do just that.

There’s no need for an in-person class to learn material on building designations, wall construction or certain equipment. The same lessons can be taught online from the comfort of a trainee’s home. (I have sponsored a bill, A5275, to make certain firefighter training courses available online.)

Colleges and universities give students options to complete some of their coursework online. Firefighter training can be similarly modernized, which may be more appealing to interested volunteers who want to fit the extensive 187-hour training process into their schedules.Of course, not all of the training can translate to an online platform. The hands-on, practical curriculum like search and rescue techniques or mask confidence will still be taught in-person.

But just taking some of the classroom hours and traveling out of the equation may help recruit some new volunteers. The lengthy training process in its current form — while absolutely necessary — can seem like a far reach for some. Anything we can do to simplify it will be a welcome change in the firefighter community.

It’s my hope that one day, when I decide to hang up my own helmet, there will be a flock of brave, young firefighters eager to volunteer in my place.

The next generation may train differently, use modernized equipment or adopt new methods of rescue, but I’m confident they will have the same principles as their predecessors.

As the saying goes; when everyone is running out, firefighters — including the next generation of volunteers — will be running in.

Assemblyman John Armato, of Buena Vista Township, represents New Jersey’s 2nd legislative district, spanning Atlantic County.