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Digger Gernatt gets his own holiday for 50 years as a firefighter, at Collins installation dinner

AWARDING 50 YEARS OF SERVICE — Paul “Digger” Gernatt was presented with a proclamation from Erie County by Legislator John Mills (left) for his years of service. Photos by Dave DeLuca.

COLLINS — The Collins Center Fire Company held its annual installation of officers dinner on Jan. 18. The night was just as much about announcing and celebrating new officers as it was honoring department veterans. Paul “Digger” Gernatt highlighted the night’s festivities, when he was recognized for his 50 years of service as a volunteer firefighter. Gernatt was also presented with a proclamation from New York state by New York Assemblyman David DiPietro.

“On behalf of all the citizens in the 147th district, I do hereby offer a thanks and appreciation for Mr. Gernatt, for his continued commitment to public service and the well-being of our community. Today, in New York state, is ‘Digger Gernatt Day,’” he said.

Gernatt currently serves as the company’s fire police captain, a position he has held for 35 years. During his 50 years of service, he has been named Erie County Fire Policeman of the Year in 2003 and was named Fireman of the Year twice, in 1989 and 2002. Gernatt is a lifetime member of the Erie County Volunteer Fire Police Association, as well as the New York State Fire Police Association.

The firefighter had spent time in the hospital, two days before, and a woman there said she recognized him, according to Gernatt.

MAN OF THE YEAR — Rick Simmons (left) was named firefighter of the year and presented with his award by chief Mike Finch (right).

“Hey, I remember you,” he recalled the woman saying. “You were at my dad’s barn fire, 49 years ago; you got burned and ended up in this hospital. I can’t believe you’re here today.”

Gernatt replied with, “Well, you just have to keep going forward.”

The firefighter has gone forward for 50 years, since beginning his service in 1963.

Gernatt also received a proclamation from the Erie County Legislature, awarded by Legislator John Mills. The Erie County Sheriff’s Department presented Gernatt an award for his 50th anniversary as a member of the fire department.

“I became a fireman because, when that whistle blows, I know that someone needs help now. Not tomorrow and not yesterday, but now. Otherwise, the whistle wouldn’t be blowing,” Gernatt said, after accepting his awards. “You have to start sometime. I joined because someone needed help, when that whistle went off. I think it’s great to have the politicians here, recognizing me. It’s great to have the community recognizing me.”

Jeremy Gernatt, Jeff Schneider and Chris Timmel were recognized for their 10 years of service, while Bob Timmel, Mark Grimm and Doug Aderman were recognized for their 20 years of service.

Rick Simmons was named the firefighter of the year by chief Mike Finch. Simmons responded to 83 of the company’s 102 calls, which led the department’s rankings. Simmons has been a member since 1987. When sitting down with his fellow chiefs to decide who would be named the firefighter of the year, Finch noted that the decision was an “easy one.

“Every chief said the same person,” Finch added. “This individual [Simmons], will do whatever is asked of him. You don’t even have to ask; he just takes it upon himself and does it. [If] trucks need repair, he’s there to help. He’s chaired a number of committees and he’s a past assistant chief. He even flies out of bed and is the first one down here to respond. He even beats the chief out of the door.”

Other top responders included Mike Finch, with 82 calls; Don Johnson, with 77; Don Tarnish, with 72; Doug Jenson, with 64; Ron Lillie, with 54; Norm Johnson and Mark Halloran, with 49 each; Ron Paluch, with 42; Mark Grimm, with 38 and Joy Johnson, with 29 calls.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Fred Marshall swore in the officers. Taking their oaths were President Mark Halloran, Vice President Jeff Schneider, Secretary Doug Jenson and Treasurer Michelle Wypij. Don Johnson was sworn in as the sergeant at arms.

Finch was named the department’s chief, while Lillie, Johnson and Paluch were sworn in as assistant chiefs.

Captains include: Simmons (truck No. 3), Grimm (truck No. 5) and Jenson (truck No. 7). Gernatt will retain his role as fire police captain. EMS Captain will be Joy Johnson. The investment committee will be made up of Halloran, Andy Husul, Dave Gamel, Jenson and Don Tharnish.

Marshall then swore in the officers for the Ladies Auxiliary. Taking oaths were President Cindy Lillie, Vice President Stephanie Finch, Secretary Janice Kief and Treasurer Stephanie Cieszynski.

Don Tarnish swore in the Junior Firefighters officers, which included President Anthony Paluch, Vice President Otto Meister, Secretary Kaylee Timmel and Treasurer Brandon Johnson.

Congressman Chris Collins was also on hand to speak and thanked the department for its service.

“You’re the backbone of keeping our community safe,” Collins said. “We all certainly recognize the service.”

Clay Moden of 106.5 WYRK was the Speaker of Ceremonies. Three Star Restaurant catered the evening’s dinner.


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