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Pumped up about volunteering; Potential recruits whose lives were touched by volunteer firefighters respond to one local company's drive to bolster its membership roster

Calvin Hudson is just 20 years old, but giving back to the Bellevue Fire Company and his community is already at the top of his "to do" list.

Hudson was one of three people who showed up Saturday morning at the Cheektowaga volunteer fire company's open house for its recruitment drive -- one of many held this weekend throughout the state as part of a push to recruit more people to become firefighters.

In Erie County, where 55 billboards splash a message for recruitment, the goal is to sign up more than 600 new firefighters.

"Every kid wants to be a firefighter when they grow up," Hudson said.

But he has a special reason.

Five years ago, Hudson suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. Bellevue volunteers responded to the emergency.

Hudson has since recovered, after intensive physical therapy. But he won't forget who first came to help him when he was most in need.

"That is a big part of my decision" to sign up, Hudson said. "It's a little way of saying thank you, and I also want to help others," Hudson said.

Like so many other area fire departments, Bellevue is on a mission to pump up its roster after a long decline, during which members either moved out of the area or stepped aside because of the crush of daily routines and jobs.

Keeping the ranks robust has been a challenge for Bellevue, which has a 43-member roster of volunteers ranging from 18 to 83. The department's charter calls for 60 members, but in recent years membership has remained in the low 40s. Bellevue was hoping to pull in six to 10 prospective new members on Saturday.

"We've lost a lot of younger guys to paid firefighting jobs down South. You can't fault them, but it affects us," said Fire Chief Brian Gould. "The change in society has totally affected the way we do business and our manpower. We see the people we do have doing more out of necessity."

To help lure prospective members, Bellevue offers training incentives, courtesy of a $90,000 federal grant awarded to Bellevue and geared toward recruitment and retention.

Lt. Gabe Casucci, Bellevue's recruitment officer, says the 64-year-old department has not reached a critical point yet, but needs to avoid shrinking further as firefighters near retirement age.

"We want to nip it in the bud," firefighter James Havernick said. "There's always something to do, even if someone doesn't feel comfortable working a fire."

Casucci says the department always is looking for "fresh blood" and young members. "We're constantly accepting applications throughout the year," he said.

John Gersitz, 38, was accompanied by his 12-year-old son, Hunter, when he signed up.

"My father was in the volunteer fire service," Gersitz said. "And now is the right time for me, with my work schedule and my two children are a little older. I know there are shortages. It's kind of a shame because so many firefighters are needed. I think people may be afraid, but they train you well."

Gersitz, too, has never forgotten Bellevue's volunteers, who responded to help his daughter when she suffered seizures a while ago.

Kristin Morton, 25, is seriously considering joining, but plans to give it more thought. "I've always wanted to help people, that's why I was interested," she said. "What really sparked my interest was seeing the [recruitment] billboards on the I-90 in the last few weeks."

Morton said she is a little nervous about fighting fires, but said she heard the training is excellent and knows that members can help out in other ways.

"That definitely is a draw, because I've never been involved in a fire before. My family has been very fortunate," she said.

Hudson didn't have to think twice about his decision.

"I'm sold. I've always wanted to help out the community and do something bigger than myself," he said.

New firefighters must be at least 18 and a resident of the fire district. They also must pass a physical. They train for nearly 100 hours and also earn their emergency medical service certification. They face one year of probation.

Gould believes the commitment is worth it.

"You get a lot of pride out of serving your community," he said. "Volunteer service is how it all started. We need our neighbors to come out and help each other."

email: krobinson@buffnews.com