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Firefighters carrying a big load through this storm

When the heavy load of snow damaged the roofs of mobile homes in West Seneca early Thursday morning, volunteer firefighters were soon there evacuating residents.

Several hours later, when a natural gas line ruptured outside an assisted-living facility, West Seneca volunteer firefighters again were on the scene, providing first aid to residents with respiratory difficulties after breathing gas that had seeped inside.

Just before noon Thursday, Buffalo firefighters were the first to arrive at a South Buffalo residence to assist a man who had toppled from the roof at a 2½-story home where he was removing snow.

And when a roof threatened to give way at a Union Road nursing home in Cheektowaga Thursday afternoon, volunteer firefighters from all over responded in large numbers to move the 184 residents.

Whether paid or unpaid, the region’s firefighters have been going nearly nonstop doing to help ease the misery of residents in need of all kinds of help.

“These firefighters get out there no matter what the day, time or weather and give it their all,” said West Seneca Assistant Police Chief Mike Boehringer, who offered a special thanks to the volunteers in his town.

“They have been on standby at their fire halls since really the beginning of this storm, and remember the time they are spending there, they are away from their own families.”

Some of the volunteer firefighters are coming from communities spared the wrath of the lake-effect storm. Dozens of firefighters from the Northtowns answered the call earlier this week when their brethren in the hardest hit areas found themselves in need of extra equipment and manpower to penetrate areas buried by snow 5 or more feet deep.

Grand Island First Assistant Fire Chief Mark Sadkowski and two other Grand Island volunteers on Thursday shuttled residents in need of medical care on all-terrain vehicles from snow-plugged side streets in Lackawanna to main thoroughfares, where other vehicles waited to transport them to hospitals and medical offices.

“Our volunteers are doing whatever is required. They’re assigned to the fire stations in Lackawanna,” said Ray Pauley, spokesman for the Grand Island Fire Company. “They are ferrying patients and equipment.”

And that’s not all.

A fire engine and two rescue vehicles raced across the island’s south bridge Thursday afternoon, bound for Cheektowaga to provide backup assistance at the Garden Gate Health Care Facility in Cheektowaga, where snow caused the roof to sag.

“Thank God there were northern volunteer fire companies available to render assistance,” Pauley said.

Many other volunteer fire companies from Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and Clarence were also doing their part to ensure emergency services continued, providing fire engines, all-terrain vehicles, and, most importantly, manpower.

“Our firefighters were down in Lakeview helping out for awhile, then they were redeployed to the Emergency Operations Center in Cheektowaga. From there, they went into a West Seneca trailer park with I believe Getzville to assist in an evacuation,” said Second Assistant Fire Chief Tim Oliver of the Snyder Fire Department.

Along with West Seneca volunteer firefighters, the Northtowns firefighters helped evacuate some 20 residents from the French Quarter Mobile Home Park off Old French Road after the roofs on two mobile homes experienced structural damage from heavy snow loads.

No injuries were reported, but the Red Cross ended up assisting the dislocated residents.

But when calamities of this dimension strike, there is the risk that firefighters and other first responders will experience burnout.

“With the Western New York lake-effect storms entering their fourth day, stresses on first responders are increasing,” said John Violanti, a University at Buffalo research professor in the School of Public Health and Health Professions and a former state trooper. “The biggest problem that first responders face is fatigue. It’s a real problem.”

They often end up working shifts as long as 18 and 20 hours, he said, going from one call to the next.

“If you’re working that long, it is not beneficial for your health and it is going to cause problems with your ability in making decisions,” Violanti said, suggesting that responders find a way to fit in naps, even if just for an hour. “Studies have shown that it can really help.”

There’s another pitfall for first responders, he said.

It happens when the weather or other circumstances conspire to prevent them reaching those in need.

“When they can’t get to the people,” Violanti said, “that can be upsetting too.”

That, though, was not the case when the gas line ruptured beside the Eden Heights assisted-living facility at about 8:30 a.m. Thursday on the 3000 block of Clinton Street.

West Seneca volunteer firefighters succeeded in providing first aid to residents there while a National Fuel crew arrived and began making repairs. Boehringer, the assistant police chief, said risk to life was eliminated by the rapid response to shut off the ruptured gas line.