Students fight fire with the WFD

“No fire is ever routine,” said Daniel Shearer ’04.

Shearer should know – he is one of two Williams students who serve as firefighters with the Williamstown Fire Department (WFD). Shearer and Janette Funk ’04 are prepared to battle flames and save lives should the need arise. They carry pagers around campus to alert them if they’re needed, and try to balance the dueling demands of firefighting and schoolwork; the latter, says Ed McGowan, chief of the WFD, definitely comes first. And, should the occasion call for it, they will plunge into a wall of flames to rescue people they’ve never met.

The WFD, located next to Water Street Books on Water Street, is staffed by volunteers. It receives many calls, most of which turn out to be false alarms. However, according to Shearer, 10-20 percent are actual emergencies, including the two or three “structure fires” (when a building is enrobed with flame) that occur each year.

It’s a “call” department – its members carry pagers with them at all hours of the day and night, receiving notification when an emergency threatens. In a call department arrangement, firefighters are paid, but only when they happen to be “on call” – those instances when they’ve actually been paged and are tending to the emergency at hand. It’s not a lot of money. At $10 per hour, Shearer says, it’s enough for a few Christmas presents at the end of the year, but little more.

While this system may work well for Williamstown, it is far from universal. Cities and larger towns, like North Adams, employ a full-time, fully-paid fire department. Municipalities smaller than Williamstown, like neighboring Pownal, Vt., tend towards the “full volunteer” department. Little funding is received from the local government, and the department is supported instead by fund-raisers and various other community sources.

Despite these differences in administrative style among fire departments, both Funk and Shearer agree that there is a remarkable spirit of fraternity among firefighters. Funk said that she has visited fire houses on both coasts – in Salem, Mass. and San Francisco – and been accepted with open arms by her fellow firefighters.

“They’ll do anything” for one of their own, she said. “There’s a weird connection there.” Funk has heard stories of fire chiefs allowing strangers without a place to stay to sleep at their houses, and she herself was invited to dinner by her comrades-in-arms.

Funk is unique: she is the only woman firefighter in the history of Williamstown. She was, she said, a little nervous at first, but her fears have failed to materialize.

“They’ve been wonderful to me,” she said of the WFD. Shearer, for his part, puts complete faith in Funk, and trusts her as he would anyone else on the force.

The absolute necessity for such trust and performance is no abstraction; lives, of both the firefighters and those whom they’re helping, depend on it. Shearer detailed a training exercise he and Funk recently underwent demonstrating the harrowing conditions that require such faith in one’s fellows. The exercise, designed to teach how to recognize an imminent “flashover” – the point at which all the material in a room reaches a temperature hot enough for ignition, and from which no firefighter can escape with his or her life – subjected both students to temperatures as high as 500 degrees for a period of 10 minutes. In the smoke above them, itself hot enough to catch on fire and dense enough to be held in one’s hand, “snakes and jellyfish” of flame crawled through the air.

Luckily for both Shearer and Funk, though, not only are they armored against this danger with confidence in one another, but also with the best kind of equipment available. Each firefighter’s hat, coat and air tank costs around $1,000.

Still, as both Shearer and Funk know, and as the nation so awfully saw on Sept. 11, no amount of expensive equipment, faith in one’s fellows or sheer courage can save a firefighter from collapsing steel and concrete. Sept. 11 brought a unique sort of grief to firefighters, the grief that comes with the death of brothers.

For Shearer, newspaper stories about his fallen comrades were both “interesting and hard to read.” Firefighters, he said, were suddenly thrust to the forefront of national attention. He cited the example of the now famous picture of three firemen, dusty with debris, raising a tattered American flag over the wreckage of the World Trade Center, as an image that would long stay in the national consciousness.

Funk was similarly hit by the deaths of so many firefighters. 343 died on that single day; it is unusual if more than 100 are lost nationwide in the course of an entire year. She now wears a bracelet with the name of one of those who died engraved upon it: “BC Thomas T. Haskell, Jr. FDNY Ladder 132” (“BC” stands for Battalion Chief).

Why do they choose to fight fires? For Funk, it is a desire to help others. The sense of relief people feel when the WFD comes to their aid is, for her, wonderful.

Shearer also cited beneficent motives: a desire to give something to the community, to make a connection with the people who are our hosts. In this spirit, Shearer plans to take off the next semester and help build a working fire department in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a city of one million people with no current fire department.

Funk, too, sees firefighting in her future, but not of the sort she is engaged in now. She would like to work as a counselor for firefighters and other public servants suffering from trauma related to their professions.

For now, both Shearer and Funk are busy here in Williamstown, doing their homework, going to class and protecting the 8,000 people – including all 2,000 students – who depend on them.

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