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Want to be a local hero?

February 19, 2016
By Joyce Schenk , Westfield Republican

During their early hero-worshiping years, many little boys announce, "I wanna be a fireman when I grow up." And, in today's society, many little girls have the same dream.

Unfortunately, when these kids become adults, few actually go into the demanding, exciting, dangerous, rewarding work of firefighting, especially as volunteers.

In New York State, volunteers staff more than 90 percent of all fire departments. And every year, fewer people are willing to join the ranks of these vital community protectors. In cities, towns and villages where volunteers are the only defense for families and homes, these local heroes are becoming scarce.

My own firefighting story began many years ago when our family of five moved to the Village of Findley Lake.

One day, I was visiting a friend when her next-door neighbor suddenly became ill. I had no idea how to help. I had never bothered to learn first aid.

The local volunteer fire department was called, but the stricken man died on the way to the hospital.

Before long, I took the American Red Cross First Aid course and joined the Findley Lake Fire Department.

My reason was simple: I was needed.

For 18 years, I answered hundreds of rescue calls and responded to dozens of fires. The work was scary and demanding, frustrating and exhausting, yet it was one of the most fulfilling periods of my life.

Being a fire department volunteer means being called out at 3 a.m. on a frosty morning, telling a young mother-to-be, "Just relax. We're here with you and everything is going to be fine," and then helping to deliver a tiny baby girl who couldn't wait for the hospital.

It's helping stranded motorists find shelter at the fire hall at the height of a blizzard. It's gathering food and blankets for the growing crowd. It's having these travelers tell you the next morning, "This is the friendliest town I've ever been in."

It's coming to think of your fellow volunteers as your brothers and sisters. The fire department is that kind of close-knit family.

As in every family, there are people who can both irritate and delight you. But, most of all, these are people who understand and respect you as you do them.

Your fellow fire department members are men and women who willingly stand shoulder to shoulder with you in situations that would make casual friends turn and run. One minute you're sitting in the fire hall, arguing about some insignificant problem. The next minute, the siren blows and you're side by side, putting on bunker coats and fire boots.

Soon, soot-smeared and grimy, weighted down by portable breathing packs, you're inching your way into a burning building together. Each of you is depending on the other to get out of this alive.

Without hesitation, you put your safety, your very life into each other's hands. You're as close as soldiers in a battlefront foxhole. It's the kind of friendship only those who have been on the line together can understand.

That's what it is to be a volunteer fire fighter. That and hundreds of other experiences that leave you with a priceless collection of memories of laughter and tears, birth and death, the gratitude of neighbors and the thanks of strangers, and the deep and lasting friendships of some of the finest men and women you'll ever meet.

The next time you hear your local fire siren scream the wordless message that someone needs help, remember that person could be among those you hold dearest. What if no one were there to answer the call?

Join your local volunteer fire department and someday, a little kid perhaps your own son or daughter may just look up to you as one of the local heroes.

With wonder in his or her eyes, he may say, "I wanna be a firefighter just like you when I grow up!"



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