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Age is Nothing But a Number at Syosset Fire Dept.

Joining later in life is becoming more the norm.

Remembering what you crammed for is hard enough sitting in a cramped desk, let alone five stories up in the air.

But Syosset Fire Department "probie" Joe Kennedy was psyched. From a ladder he was about to wow his instructor, who met him at the window with, "Can I ask you a question?"

Proper entry procedure? Oxygen mask protocol? Bring it on!

"He just asked, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" Kennedy remembers.

Kennedy was 50.

That was five years ago, but someone earning his or her stripes today might be less likely to get that query. The Syosset firehouse has gotten a little grayer for more than one reason. Young parents are too busy shuttling kids with jam-packed schedules. The success of Syosset High School means a lot of prospects going away to college.

But Dep. Chief Peter Silver, who oversees recruitment, isn't complaining. When you're looking for volunteers, mindset is a whole lot more important than mileage.

"Around here people are cranky when they're not working, and they're not getting paid," Silver says. "Most people get cranky over having to work when they are getting paid."

Their stories run the gamut. Rick Stangel, 56, was enamored by the FDNY growing up in the Bronx and finally got to realize a dream at 50. Roland Feibert, 47, followed his teen son in a year ago after the latter joined the department's Explorer Post. Russian transplant Alex Weiss, 52, wanted to pay back the community that treated him so well.

"To write a check is the easy thing," says Weiss, who joined at 48 after reading a newspaper story about manpower shortages at some departments. He had no issue taking orders from people more than 20 years his junior, and he's now a lieutenant.

"You can pretend that there isn't a problem, or you can do something about it," he says of that fateful article.

Volunteers can end up going on more than 1,000 calls a year. Carol Auleta joined as an emergency medical technician when her motherly duties around the house started winding down. Now, she gets stopped in the supermarket by grateful people she sometimes doesn't even remember.

On the other hand, Margaret Zulkofske went into service in her mid-40s as a single parent, her sister sometimes watching over her kids while she went on a call. People get different things out of volunteering, many of which they had no idea of when they signed up. 

Kennedy credits the collegial atmosphere with bringing out the personality of his 12-year-old son, Joey, who suffers from autism.

"You have these rough and tough firemen come up to me and say, 'Joey shook my hand,' which is a big step for him," Kennedy says. "When you hear that you can't put the feeling into words."

Stories like Kennedy's make the recruiting motto Silver repeats ring true, regardless of age: "Save a life, change your life."

The Syosset Fire Department will hold open houses on Sunday, May 2 and Sunday, June 6, from 9:30-11 a.m. For information on joining the department contact Dep. Chief Silver at (516) 677-4502.

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