In Don Cetin's half century and counting of fighting Freeport fires, the basics are the same but the equipment has gotten better.

"We used to use our ears as thermometers," recalled Cetin, 69, who joined after hanging out at the firehouse with a friend. "If the ears started burning, it's time to get out."

The Freeport Fire Department lauded him and eight other active members who just reached 50 years of service, making them honorary chiefs Saturday at its annual dinner in Melville. Some haven't rushed into a burning house for decades, but they still hook up hoses to hydrants, clean trucks and operate water pumps, freeing younger colleagues for search and rescue. Others go on braving the flames; half the men have Class A firefighter status, which requires them to pass yearly physicals and tests.

PhotosFirehouses across Long Island

Ray Maguire, executive director of the 336-member department, said long-timers fill a need and prove that volunteer firefighters are "born, not made."

"There'll be fire calls during the day," Maguire said, "and a lot of these retired guys . . . are rolling these rigs because the other folks are at work."

It's unusual to have so many long-timers from the same year, 1965 in this case, he said.

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For Bill Walsh, 70, who retired from Freeport Electric, firefighting is in the blood. His grandfather joined when horses pulled fire wagons. His sons are members. He's been in major fires, including one that destroyed three Main Street stores in the 1960s. He sat on water cannons, or bundled hoses, pushing them side to side for hours, fighting to control the force of the water. Now, the cannons are mounted on trucks and can be moved with one hand.

These days, Walsh works as a "fire police," securing the perimeter, a "dangerous job" because he can be standing on a highway with cars.

"A lot of people don't want to stop . . . and you've got to stop them," said Walsh.

As honorary chiefs, the nine get to don double-breasted uniform jackets with gold buttons. Two have sons who were honored at the dinner for 25 years of service.

A retired oil truck driver, Cetin plans to volunteer as long as he can: "It makes you feel young."

Walsh never thought he'd be in the department so long. "This nine, we all came in within a couple months of each other," he said. "We have a good time when we're together. Not many people hang around after 50 years."