SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — When he was on the Town Council, Bryant Da Cruz often spoke about the need for South Kingstown to recruit and retain volunteers among its fire and emergency medical services.
It’s a cause very near and dear to Da Cruz, who recently rejoined the volunteer fire unit he first tried out almost 10 years ago. He’s also hoping others can see the value in joining their local volunteer fire department.
Volunteering doesn’t just help others, Da Cruz said.
“It helps you, too. We’re going to show up generally when people are having a very bad day.,” Da Cruz said. “Our job is to make their day a little bit better by showing up.”
Da Cruz, a real estate agent and secretary of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors Board, has traded late-night town council meetings for a helmet, boots and shifts at the Snug Harbor fire station. It’s where he started in 2013 after wanting to join the Union Fire District a year earlier, but not having the time.
“My kids were still fairly young, 7 and 9, and I wanted to get involved and volunteer somewhere,” he said.
Then in the fall of 2013, he responded to a flyer that he was sent as part of a recruiting drive by the Snug Harbor station.
“Out of 500 sent, one person responded and it was me,” he said.
Da Cruz attended training with the Union Fire District as a “probie,” a probationary member.
“The training that Union Fire District and Snug Harbor provides is second to none,” he said.
Paid departments in other communities even come to use the Union District’s training facility off Asa Pond Road, he said.
“The cool thing is that joining the Union Fire District opens the doors up for you to get your EMT license and other certifications” for firefighting, he said. “Any training that you’re looking for, they have.”
The Union Fire District encompasses eight stations throughout town, including Snug Harbor. There’s also the Kingston Volunteer Fire District, which is a separate district and operates out of the University of Rhode Island campus.
Together, the two districts provide fire protection services for a full-time resident population of more than 30,000 and a transient student population of more than 13,000.
According to the Union Fire District Chief Steve Pinch’s report for 2019, there are 88 members and the district responded to more than 1,000 calls for assistance. He said that is up to about 1,200 calls today. The district also received a more than $400,000 federal FEMA grant to help with recruitment and retention of new firefighters.
Ask almost any firefighter in the country and they’ll say volunteer ranks have thinned considerably in the last two decades or so.
“Many years ago their numbers were in the hundreds,” Da Cruz said. “Even when I was on the council I was trying to help recruit and come up with ideas, incentives, scholarships to not only recruit, but retain, members.”
People don’t realize that the fire stations cover about 60 square miles within South Kingstown and provide aid to neighboring towns as well, Da Cruz said. Many also don’t understand the department is populated exclusively with volunteers.
“They think we’re a paid department,” he said. Most times when there’s an emergency call, members are paged at home to come to the station and then ride out to a call in the fire trucks.
The district has recently started duty days and duty nights to make sure stations are manned as much as possible.
“We’ve signed up for duty nights, three or four a month,” Da Cruz said. Members also generally attend drills twice weekly. Safety of members is the top priority, Da Cruz said, and no one does more than he or she is comfortable doing.
“We’re not super heroes,” he added.
But being a member is not entirely about training and responding to incidents, either. There’s an important community aspect as well.
“We’ve always wanted this to be a community thing,” Da Cruz said. In the past the station has lent out tables and chairs for local residents who had get-togethers, or hosted children’s birthday parties at the station. Da Cruz and other firefighters enjoy bringing the trucks, or “apparatus,” to local Touch a Truck events so kids can climb aboard and explore.
“And our May breakfast that we’ve had for many years is how we raise money for the station,” he said. The station receives money through the Union District, but the breakfast helps purchase extra items, he added.
“We’ve also had Christmas toy drives and things like that,” he said. “Parades are always cool for kids. It’s also cool for people that are part of the fire service to be able to go out in a way where you’re not rushing to an emergency. You’re having a little bit of fun and also bringing smiles to peoples’ faces.”
Veterans in the districts are always willing to welcome new recruits into the fold.
“This is an opportunity for someone to get their feet wet while in high school or college. You learn new skills and decide if this is something you want to do,” Da Cruz said. “You grow as a person.”