AMHERST, NY – Among the bays of turnout gear at the North Bailey Volunteer Fire Company hall on Sweet Home Road, there is tucked into one of them a pair of crutches.
That’s not standard equipment for most firefighters.
It is for John Cutler.
“I was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus," explained the 13 year firefighting veteran.
His conditions left him paralyzed from his ankles down...and water on his brain.
“I’ve had approximately 80 surgeries since birth,” Cutler explained.
However, despite his disabilities, when he was old enough at age 16, Cutler decided to follow his father’s footsteps into the volunteer fire service.
He remembers clearly that some were skeptical.
“There were a few you misbelievers,” said Cutler. “They would say, ‘he's in a wheel chair, he can't do it …why even try’?"
“I thought it was important to give him that chance," recalled Dave Humbert, who served as the company’s fire chief at the time.
“The good thing about volunteering is that there's a job for everybody," Humbert said.
Cutler, who mostly uses a wheelchair but is able to walk with crutches, does respond to calls but is limited in his duties when he gets to a scene.
He will never climb ladders, haul hoses, or enter a burning building.
But there's plenty to keep him busy.
“I'll take the guys’ air packs they breathe from and change the oxygen bottles. I'll take vital sings, I'll make sure they all have water…anything I can do,” said Cutler. “After calls, I'll do the paperwork call back dispatch to give the information they need.”
As much as he does for the fire company, Cutler says being part of the organization does just as much for him in a variety of ways.
“It gives me a reason to not sit and home and say, ‘woe is me…I'm disabled, what am I gonna do with my life’? It means a lot because when I was young the doctors thought I would be a vegetable…they told my parents they doubted I’d be able to talk, read, write, or eat,” Cutler said.
"What you need in a volunteer is service and the dedication to work with people," said humbert, adding that Cutler represents a shining example of those qualities and has become a valued member of the fire company.
"Do I get looks when I get out of a fire truck with my crutches? Absolutely," said Cutler. “But like everyone else responding, I’m there to help people.”
When he does notice an occasional sideways stare, Cutler said his standard response is to smile and wave.
Cutler, who actually holds more training certificates than several of his counterparts who serve as volunteer firefighters and who have no disabilities, is also Vice President of the Erie County Volunteer fire association and a forward on the Buffalo Sabres intermediate gold sled hockey team.
"If you’re ever in a position like I used to be, and thinking ‘woe is me’, don't think like that. Do something about it, and take initiative," Cutler said.
Click on the video player to watch our story from reporter Dave McKinley, and Photojournalist Dooley O’Rourke.