Volunteer firefighting: the hot seat of civic service

It has always been a tradition at Williams to volunteer for civic organizations, local schools and many other groups. Even so, one of the lesser-known civic activities is to work for the local fire brigade. After completing all of the required parts of training, a student must complete an application that is reviewed by the Chief and Officers of the Fire District. If all of the background qualifications are met and the student passes the training courses, he or she can become an active member of the force, helping fight fires and rescue accident victims around Berkshire County.

Currently, there are four students who work on the force: Erryn Leinbaugh ’99, Aubrey Linen ’99, Justin Oeltjen ’01 and Nolan Burke ’02. Most of them have been working for the fire district since their freshman year, but the fire district is always looking for new recruits. Once a student becomes a member, he or she receives a pager and must report to the fire station on Water Street any time a call goes out. The students are allowed to do anything on the force, including fighting structure fires and wildfires, operating hoses, and using air tanks in building searches. They also help the ambulance squad at vehicle accidents using the Jaws of Life and other machines to extract victims.

Several weeks ago, the members of the fire district were called to help fight a wildfire in central Massachusetts that was burning out of control. The call went out on a Friday morning at 2:00 am, and students did not return until Friday evening. Burke commented, “[It was] absolutely fantastic. We were on the fire lines for eight hours or more and were operating on no sleep, but it was awesome.” Although the work can be fun, it sometimes interferes with academics and extracurriculars. Even so, most teachers are willing to let the students make up any work that they miss. When Burke went to fight this wildfire, he missed a psychology test, but was allowed to complete it at a later date.

Before running into smoke-filled buildings and battling brush blazes, students must complete a training program that is rigorous, but well worth the time if they are interested in learning something that they will never learn in a classroom. After passing a physical exam, a prospective firefighter must complete three eight-hour classes offered by Berkshire County. These classes convene at several local fire stations, and they teach all the basic techniques needed to fight a fire. Students learn techniques for fighting fires both indoors and out, extracting victims from automobiles and using air packs and other vital tools. The culmination of this training is several live burns that take place at the burn tower at the Pittsfield Engine Company 5.

After completion of the required training classes and some extra schooling at the department, students are ready to do anything except drive the trucks or operate the pumps, which require extra training and experience. Besides the basic classes, the Massachusetts Fire Academy also teaches weekend classes that focus on certain areas of fire fighting such as search and rescue and wildfire techniques. After gaining some experience and learning more advanced skills, a student can take a test to be certified by the National Fire Protection Agency, which is recognized nationally.

Students believe that training and experience gained through the work in the fire district are also beneficial to their future. Leinbaugh hopes “to become a firefighter-paramedic in the near future. It’s absolutely fantastic work, and I really can’t think, at this stage of my life, of anything I’d rather do. It’s exciting, interesting, always changing, challenging, and fulfilling.” Leinbaugh plans to continue his career in fire fighting by applying for a job in the West Metro Fire District in Denver.

Students not planning to pursue a career in fire fighting after graduation think working for the fire district teaches skills important for any job. Linen commented, “I do think that I learned some really useful things that will definitely continue to help me. They’re not things that sound very grandiose, but they are things that I have yet to learn in class at Williams.” Leinbaugh added, “It’s taught me a lot of interpersonal skills. It’s also taught me a great deal of responsibility – for myself, for my fellow citizens, for the place in which I live. And finally, it’s taught me problem-solving skills I would have never learned at Williams. It’s taught me how to calmly, quickly address a problem and plan a rational, effective solution.”

Besides offering another option for volunteering and civic duty, volunteer fire fighting can provide a college student with a different kind of learning. Students who are interested in volunteering can call Williamstown Fire Chief Ed McGowan at 458-8113.