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Jessica Kitzen, mother of three, decided to become a firefighter after reading a recruiting letter from the Halesite Fire Depart-
ment last year. But first Kitzen sought permission from her family -- especially Katharine, 11, her youngest child.
"Even to this day, when the beeper goes off, she says, 'Mom, get moving,' " Kitzen said.
Kitzen was one of 27 people who attended two open house recruiting sessions at the firehouse last summer. She heard department members speak of the joys and challenges of serving as volunteer firefighters and rescue workers.
"We were open and very honest about some of the things they could see," said Dan McConnell, the department's first assistant chief. "We said that some of it would be hard."
On Monday, state and county officials held a news conference to boost the Recruit-NY program, which aims to increase the ranks of volunteer firefighters. The new Halesite recruits are good examples of the sort of people needed across the Island.
Of the 27 who attended the recruiting sessions at Halesite, 15 put in applications. Of those, 13 qualified after mandatory medical clearances to become probationary department members, he said.
In September, the first group of "probies" began training. Later, they would be joined by others. McConnell said the group has since reached 14, with a 15th soon to join them.
Halesite's successful recruiting effort grew the department by a whopping 20 percent. The new volunteers range in age from their mid-20s to mid-60s, and include a variety of ethnicities and several women.
Kitzen joined with the goal of becoming a firefighter. Carolyn Corkett said she joined with the goal of becoming an EMT.
Like many of the other probationary members, however, Kitzen and Corkett are cross training. For now, they are taking EMT courses; next month, they'll take basic firefighting at the Halesite fire station.
In New York State, 75 percent of all fire departments are staffed by volunteers. On Long Island, it's more than 99 percent -- Long Beach and Glen Cove have paid and volunteer departments -- which makes volunteers responsible for protecting lives and property in every Nassau and Suffolk community.
For decades, the number of volunteers has been falling. But that's beginning to change, said Robert McConville, of Selden, second vice president of the Firefighters Association of New York State. Statewide, the numbers are relatively flat at 110,000 firefighter and medical rescue volunteers, he said.
"It's the same on Long Island, although that may vary, department by department," he said. "We've been working hard at recruiting and those efforts are paying off."
Before its recruiting effort, membership in Halesite's department had fallen to 60, the lowest since 1985. But calls to the department had increased by 50 percent over that time, McConnell said. The department sent recruiting letters out to residents, put up banners and signs, and turned to social media.
"We took a lot of our ideas from FASNY's website," McConnell said.
Who can volunteer? "The number one question we get is, 'Am I too old?' " said Andy Magerle, the department's chief. "The answer is no. There are jobs for everybody here."
It did not take Kitzen long to feel part of the department. "I have a family here and service here has made me even prouder to be a member of the Halesite community," she said.
When that beeper goes off in the middle of the night, "My husband gives me a kiss and says, 'Go save lives and get home safe,' " Kitzen said. "What higher calling is there than that?"