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Firefighters: The next generation

The loudspeaker comes on inside the fire hall, "Harris Hill firemen, a motor vehicle accident with injuries at Main and Transit."

Within seconds, sirens are blaring, lights are flashing, and the thunderous trucks roar to life and pull out of the hall.

Volunteer firefighters respond to this situation and many like it frequently across Western New York. What may be surprising is that some of these first responders are high school students.

Most fire halls allow men or women to join a department after they turn 18 and complete a series of practical and written tests.

At the Harris Hill Volunteer Fire Company in Clarence, "Members with Restrictions" are new recruits as young as 16 who respond to calls as normal firefighters but are not allowed to enter a burning building, ride on the first truck out, or work at an emergency scene with power tools. "Members with restrictions" are assigned a training officer who teaches the new recruit.

Mike Haefner, 17, a junior at Clarence High School and firefighter with restrictions at Harris Hill, loves what he does. "I want to be a professional firefighter in Buffalo when I'm older. My first fire was an overwhelming experience; when I rolled up on the scene all I saw was smoke and a hydrant. I ran to the hydrant with the hose, hooked it up, and began supplying water."

Due to changing lifestyles and demographics, the number of volunteer first responders is dropping in Western New York and around the country. The number of volunteer firefighters in New York State is roughly 90,000, down from 130,000 a decade ago, according to the Post Star in Glens Falls.

"Not as many people volunteer, but how do you get someone to do something so inherently dangerous for free?" says Garry Daigler, a captain at Harris Hill. To attract new members and help keep current ones, Harris Hill has a state-of-the-art workout room, a conference center, kitchen, and a clubroom complete with television pool table.

Fire halls are offering more programs and benefits to students than in the past. "We go to high schools and give students the opportunity to earn community service hours," Daigler said. "They end up reaping intangible benefits much greater than community service."

Clarence High School requires Mike Haefner to put in 30 hours of community service before graduation. "If I handed it all in, I would probably have well over 1,000 hours of community service," laughs Mike. "I'm not in it for the community service. I joined because my father was a firefighter."

"Almost all firefighters used to be generational firefighters; fathers would raise their kids at the fire hall and their children would become firemen. We are losing that," says Daigler.

Clarence senior Adam Klyczek, 18, will be a freshman at Niagara Community College in the fall and just joined Harris Hill. "Someday I want to join the Army and become a medic. Being a volunteer fireman is great because the majority of the calls at Harris Hill are EMS-related. Also, the fire company pays my tuition to become EMS-certified which is a six-month course and would normally be very expensive," Adam said.

For students younger than 16 who still want to participate, the Explorers program run by the Boy Scouts of America is active at most volunteer fire halls in the area for boys and girls. Students can train and participate in drills with firefighters, but are not allowed to go on calls. The Explorers run social activities such as video game parties and Lasertron games where Explorers from different fire companies can compete and get together.

According to one firefighter, most people become volunteer firefighters to give back and better serve their community.

From directing traffic when the power is out, to pumping water at a house fire, teenagers are training and working to be the next generation of volunteer firefighters.

Ryan Brown is a junior at Clarence.

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