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New recruits prepare for graduation from Erie County Fire Academy

John Farrell heard the call to be a volunteer firefighter. Like clockwork, the blare of the emergency whistle at the nearby fire house pierced the air each day – until the West Falls man could take it no more.

“I heard that damn thing go off a thousand times,” Farrell said of the siren. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do something about it.’ ”

Farrell walked over to the fire station to complain, but to his surprise, the chief actually talked him into joining the force.

The impromptu career change culminates Friday in Farrell’s graduation from the Erie County Fire Academy.

And while Farrell’s story is perhaps the most uncommon – he is 66 years old and a recently retired medical technician – he is one of a growing number of local volunteers who will soon join the ranks.

More than 1,000 Erie County men and women signed up to be volunteer firefighters in the past 18 months, including a record 700 this year, said Tiger Schmittendorf, deputy fire coordinator for the county’s Emergency Services Department.

Those numbers are especially impressive, Schmittendorf said, because they appear to buck national trends showing a steady decline in fire volunteerism.

“I just think it speaks volumes of the nature and character of our community that 700 people would volunteer,” Schmittendorf said. “This is what separates us from other communities.”

The spike may be due in part to the county’s aggressive marketing campaign – seen on billboards, in newspaper advertisements and on television – geared toward potential recruits.

The ads appear to have worked – although Erin Hutchinson was hooked long before she saw an ad to be a firefighter.

“It was just something that I was going to do,” said Hutchinson, of Amherst. “It was just in my blood.”

Hutchinson practically grew up at the North Bailey Fire Hall in Amherst, where her father and brother were firefighters.

Hutchinson and 20 others Tuesday rushed into burning cars and buildings in a controlled training exercise at the county’s fire training center in Cheektowaga.

“I knew sort of what to expect,” Hutchinson said, “but you’re not really truly experiencing it until you get to go in.”

Fires within the steel-frame building reached as hot as 1,000 degrees, and recruits were taught the safe way to enter and exit a building while fighting the flames.

The training sessions include new recruits and veteran volunteer firefighters who are polishing up their firefighting skills.

Firefighters in less-populated areas often respond to medical calls and are not always exposed to as many live fires as those in more urban or suburban areas, Farrell said, so the training helps them stay prepared.

“The instructors are unbelievable,” said Farrell. “Car fires, house fires, factory fires, chemical fires, you name it, they have been there,” he said.

Schmittendorf, who has fought fires for more than three decades, said that while volunteer numbers have been up the last few years, overall trends confirm a need to keep filling the ranks of the county’s 94 volunteer fire companies.

In an effort to attract volunteers, the fire stations have become more flexible on firefighters’ time and how many fire-related activities they need to perform.

“A job that used to take 10 people 10 hours to do now requires 20 people who only have five hours of their time to give,” he said.

Some companies, like Town Line in Lancaster, allow firefighters from all over the region to come and give a few hours of their time at the station instead of requiring them to be on call all the time.

That means despite the high numbers, fire companies can still use a lot more John Farrells.

The former Vietnam veteran has always thought – unlike most people – that maybe he wanted to rush into a burning building to help save those in need.

In Vietnam, he said, “there were a few men that I couldn’t save.”

But as a volunteer firefighter, he said, he can have another chance.