March 16, 2005

A Day in the Life: Volunteer Firefighters in Collegetown

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When I arrived at 309 College Ave., some of the “bunkers” — college students who serve the Ithaca Fire Department as live-in volunteer firefighters — are playing pool downstairs. Josh Saul ’06, a first year resident of the fire station, led a tour around the fire station.

Saul is one of four bunkers at Station 9 (Collegetown), the busiest of IFD’s four satelite stations. Station 5 at Ithaca College is typically less busy. The facility has capacity for 10, creating comfortable living conditions for each of the volunteers living there. Comfortable, that is, until the middle of the night when the fire alarms start to sound.

“It gets bad around two in the morning,” Saul said. “That’s when people are coming back from the bars and smoking and things like that.”

Saul explained the procedure for a fire alarm.

“When the fire alarm goes off, [bunkers] get sent to it, but if it’s any kind of fire, the Central Station will send some fire engines,” Saul said. “For medical calls, we’re sent and Bangs Ambulance also comes. We work with them all the time. We get there faster than them, usually five or 10 minutes before, so we do preliminary stuff and get them ready for transport to the hospital.”

Saul first heard about the IFD’s bunker program last year through a friend. He passed a physical fitness evaluation and completed several weeks of intensive training in August before receiving Firefighter 1 and 2 certification, the authorization necessary to enter the interior of building during a fire.

As a bunker, Saul works two 14-hour night shifts every eight days in exchange for free living accommodations and the unique experience of — literally — putting out fires, along with responding to medical calls.

During any given shift, Saul could have to go to Johnny O’s for a false alarm, direct traffic in the middle of College Avenue, and report to the scene of a real fire.

Though Saul receives many of the privileges of a paid firefighter (including having his own offical uniform), he is not allowed to drive the fire engine as a volunteer.

“I offer all the time but they tell me to sit in the backseat,” Saul said.

Lieutenant Robert Covert ’89, a former bunker himself, was also at the station. Covert told the Sun that about a third of the current paid staff bunked at one time or another.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how much training our bunkers get. When bunkers come in, we mostly focus on them assisting us with fire training. They’re exposed to a lot.” Covert added that the volunteer bunker firefighters go through the same physical fitness evaluation that a regular firefighter would.

The bunkers from Station 9 rountinely go to the Central Fire Station on Green Street for training on the first of their shift. This week’s training was on pump discharge pressures. The volunteer bunkers work with paid, professional fire fighters, as well.

“The paid guys are good people; they trained us. I work with them twice a week [and] it’s nice to hang out here — we cook together, watch TV and stuff. It would be nice to live with a bunch of my friends, but this is better. When I don’t want to be studying and the fire alarm goes off, it’s great,” Saul described.

Alex You, grad, is in his third year living at the fire station. You and Saul discussed their feelings on bunking.

“It would be kind of fun to live in a house with all my friends and have a kegerator in my room and stuff, but this is more interesting,” Saul said.

“Yeah, I’ve never really regretted it,” You said.

“This place is a lot nicer than the [places] my friends live…[ and] pay $600 per month for,” Saul said.

The bunkers described how their experiences working at the firehouse have allowed them to gain familiarity with the community.

“I’ve gotten to deal with a lot of people in the surrounding area,” Saul said. “I feel like you’re a lot closer with the community when you do this.”

You agreed, saying that, “especially as a student, people tend to stay in their own little bubble…but [bunkers have] the chance to go into the community and help out.” As for the emotional toll which can arise from doing emergency relief work, “I don’t think you’re ever that detached,” You said.

“It’s pretty intense, especially when someone gets hurt,” Saul said. “You try to really take care of those people, give them the best care, and then you never really know what happens to them.”

Some of the benefits of working as bunker include that “people are always happy to see firefighters,” Saul said.

“It’s [also] nice because you know a lot about the community. You know the dorms, the restaurants, all the Collegetown apartments.”

Saul and You attested to a feeling of camraderie among the people working in the fire station. Saul will continue to bunk next year, but You plans to attend medical school in the fall.

“I’d definitely like to keep volunteering a couple nights a week wherever I’m working in the future. It’s a lot of fun. Maybe I’d get into paid fire fighting, but probably not,” You said. Saul told the Sun that the most important qualities for a bunker to posess are to ” know when not to say anything. You have to be able to get along with people. Know your place, get along well with other people, and follow directions.”

While the bunker program has been successful, the IFD currently lacks the financial resources to fund a 2005 bunker training class. Saul, Young, and Covert say they are hopeful, however, that the IFD will find a way to continue the program. The lack of funding will not affect any current bunkers.

Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer