I met Anne Johnston ’19 during cross-country pre-season and was immediately interested in her stories, especially about her adventures volunteer firefighting. Weeks later, I reunited with this fascinating freshman to learn even more about her unusual life and hobbies.
What was your high school like?
High school was definitely a good experience. We had 1200 kids at our school. I was a runner for 11 seasons and a field hockey player for one. We weren’t very diverse, which is why coming to Williams is definitely really neat and a shocking experience at times. I think I spent most of my time in the fire department during high school.
What were you doing in the fire department?
I joined the fire department when I turned 16, so sophomore year of high school. I spent around 20 to 30 hours a week down at the fire house. I started as a junior probationary member. When you turn 18, you become a regular probationary member and get voted in for your full membership. I got my Fire One certification this summer. Our town is 100 percent volunteer, so you go to carbon monoxide alarms, you go to fire alarm activations, motor vehicle accidents, basement fires, chimney fires, whatever.
Have you gotten involved with the fire department here?
I have applied and if everything goes well I will be in [this week] and I will be working there 24/7, just like at home.
So if you are in class or something?
If it goes off, I go to the call. It is a lot of balancing. If a call comes in at 2 a.m. and you have an exam the next day, it is kind of hard to get yourself out of bed. I have timed myself and it takes 3 minutes and 7 seconds to bike from Mission to the firehouse so it is going to stink in the middle of the winter when it is snowy and icy and cold. So I am going to get on the truck with the driver and then we meet the rest of the firefighters on scene.
Wow. That’s great. Do you want to continue to be a firefighter for the rest of your life? Is there a difference between volunteer firefighters and career firefighters?
Yes, as a career, I do. Yeah so volunteer firefighters are usually on a 24/7 basis where they have to respond to a certain percentage of calls. They have a side job, they have families, it’s kind of just whatever. Career [firefighters] are most likely found in the cities and that is their full time job. They run shifts of 24 hours where they live at the station and they can’t do anything but firefight for those 24 hours. And they are going to see much bigger, crazier stuff. In a small town like here or Darien we never really needed the whole career fire department, but in the cities you definitely do because they are running about 3000 calls a year. Unfortunately, most departments don’t hire girls, so it will be a matter of where I can get hired.
Is it because of sexism?
Well … the fact that you have to pass a physical test before being able to apply and most girls can’t pass that. They have like a 30 percent passing rate, while males have a 90 percent passing rate. And the other [fact] is that they are just not used to having girls on the job.
What is the test like?
The physical test was probably the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. You get 10 minutes and 20 seconds to do a series of eight stations, which are hose dragging, dragging a 165 pound mannequin, you have to go through a maze, you have to use a sledgehammer, you have to carry saws, you have to raise a ladder, lower a ladder and while you are doing all that we had 75 pounds of weight on us. And then you have to do a stairmaster for three minutes. When I passed, everyone was shocked. I was like, I want this really badly.
Why do you love firefighting?
So most people’s first answer would be volunteering. My first answer would be the adrenaline. I actually wrote my college essay on it. About the adrenaline junkie and [that] is what most firefighters are. It is the idea of never knowing what you are going to get. You prepare for firefighting, you prepare for the basics. You go over about anything you can see, but a fire is going to change everything. So I love the unknown. I also love getting up at four in the morning and driving to the fire house. It is like you are on a mission. You get down there and everyone is wide awake and everyone is screaming. And then the brotherhood. It is actually called the familyhood now because I am there. But everyone just cares so much about each other and we are so supportive. You have each other’s backs in the fire but also outside of the fire. We are checking in every day. You spend a lot of time and you go through a lot of strange experiences together like tight spaces, panic, fear. But then there is the idea of just giving back to the community that I think is great. I love giving back to people that come to see the firehouse. It is amazing to see how little they know about the firehouse. And knowing that every little thing I am doing is making a difference.
How did you end up at the College if you knew you wanted to firefight?
I definitely wanted the full college experience and I realized that going to a fire school wasn’t really that. I looked at a lot of schools. I fell in love with the running program here and then I just love the mountains and the outdoors and everyone is just so laid back and willing to help. It’s not just like you are competitive with your peers. How I see being here, because there are no fire classes or anything related, is to sort of just widen my perspective and sort of expand my general knowledge. I am taking the most random classes ever. Africana studies; women’s, gender and sexuality studies; Spanish and math.
What has been your favorite part of Williams so far?
Embracing my Argentinian citizenship. I have dual citizenship. In my hometown, no one really spoke Spanish and, at my house, my mom always tried to encourage us to speak in Spanish, but we were always so embarrassed by it. My mom’s whole family is down there in Neuquen, Patagonia. But here everyone is so proud of where they are from and we have a boy in our entry who speaks Spanish so we speak Spanish to each other all the time. You see a professor and I just start speaking to him in Spanish … It is definitely really cool to say I am an Argentine, I am a firefighter and I can say I am a Williams student.
Have you hiked in Patagonia a lot?
All the time. We go twice a year. That is definitely the highlight of my year.
Is hiking a big part of your life?
Hiking is definitely a big part of my life. Hiking and skiing, so that is why I love the mountains and Williams. I have skied just about every ski resort in the U.S. I have like five to check off on my list. And then we go down to Bariloche and Neuquen in Argentina every summer and my greatest accomplishment would be hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, which was definitely super fun. I did that sophomore year of high school with my aunt. My aunt was the first Argentine woman to climb Everest. She thought it was a breeze.
Are you planning to climb any of the other Seven Summits?
I am hoping actually for one of my Winter Studies to go down to Aconcagua, which is the South American Seven Summit and the actual hiking season for it is January to February. And then Mount Elbrus in Russia. Those will be the next two I want to do.
Do you eventually want to climb Everest?
I have debated it. I want to, but it has become such a touristy, commercial thing recently that it is like who can pay the most money and who can get up. The weather is always so unpredictable. My aunt climbed it and said she would never climb it again. It is sort of like a one and done, so we will see.