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Fire stations hope ‘tryouts’ ignite interest in volunteering

Joe Tasker’s moment came Saturday when Tasker pried open a car door using the Jaws of Life, rescuing an imaginary victim in the back seat of makeshift car wreck at William Street’s Doyle Hose Co. 1 on William Street in Cheektowaga.

For Jonathan Tuttle of the Town of Tonawanda, donning the turnout gear of a Sheridan Park volunteer firefighter and practicing on a charged hose line outside the firehouse helped reel him in.

Whatever it is that brings out “the fire” in volunteerism, citizens owe it to themselves – and their communities – to give it a try, says Tiger Schmittendorf, Erie County’s deputy fire coordinator.

“Certainly, the more interactive we make it, the more engaged people can be,” said Schmittendorf, whose idea to hold “firefighter tryouts” at many of the Erie County firehouses that held open houses Saturday was clearly a hit. In all, 51 of the 94 fire departments in the county held open houses as part of the statewide initiative “RecruitNY,” designed to promote recruitment efforts.

That number spiked from 32 last year. The initiative seems to be working.

Tasker, 28, said he was “looking to give back” to his community of Cheektowaga. That’s what lured him to Doyle’s “tryout” on a sunny afternoon.

“It’s just so cool to see how it works,” Tasker said about the Jaws of Life. “You see it on TV, but learning how to do it is different."

Tasker had some help, of course. A couple of Doyle’s younger volunteers, Ken Carlucci III, 20, and Matt Coons, 19, were among those who talked to him about their experiences and demonstrated how to crush the steel with the Jaws, handle a fully charged fire hose and extinguish a real fire.

Chief Rick Nowak was nearby to relay stories of lifesaving efforts performed by his department, and Michael “Maz” Mazurowski, Doyle’s recruitment man, offered encouragement.

Then, Tasker was applying for his chance to be trained as a volunteer in the fire service with the prospect of working those Jaws of Life for real – gaining knowledge and skills that could someday result in saving someone’s life.

“These are everyday people doing extraordinary things,” Nowak said of his fellow volunteers.

Nowak could speak about himself. He’s credited with three “saves” in his nearly 30-year tenure with Doyle, including that of an 11-year-old boy who likely would have died in a recent head-on Genesee Street collision, had Nowak not been passing by the accident scene.

“The training will bring it out in them,” Nowak insisted, explaining that average citizens need not fear they couldn’t perform the same efforts. “You can play a video game, but at the end, what did you get? You don’t get anything out of it. With this you do. You practice and practice. Then, when a person stops breathing, you know how to help them.”

A yearning for service and the brotherhood of the fire service is also pulling the 24-year-old Tuttle into Sheridan Park.

Tuttle, whose aunt and uncles serve as volunteers in Wilson, has seen firsthand the value of their work. “I’d just like to protect and serve my community,” Tuttle said. “I’d been wanting to join.”

His application was music to the ears of Sheridan Park Chief Jim Chatham.

“We had lots of visitors,” said Chatham about the 67-member Sheridan Park’s inaugural open house Saturday. “We were lucky enough to have one person apply.”

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