Cornell students, graduates and employees have for years been an integral part of the Cayuga Heights Fire Department, an all-volunteer department serving Cayuga Heights, the Town of Ithaca, Cornell and other Tompkins County regions.
Chief George Tamborelle said that whether students go on to become paid firefighters or let their helmet collect dust in a garage, every student volunteer takes their experiences with them after they graduate or leave Ithaca.
Devon Savoy ’15, who has volunteered at the department since her sophomore year at Cornell, told The Sun that she learned a lot about firefighting and also found a community during her time at the department.
Blake Berger ’15 volunteered while he was an undergraduate and master’s student and now works for the university and continues to volunteer. He said it gives him a “sense of purpose and a second family.”
“I have made connections within this fire department that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” Berger said.
While the Cayuga Heights department is better staffed than most departments around the county, Tamborelle still worries every year about having enough volunteers to handle emergencies.
“Every department including ours is really running on the edge these days,” he said. “We are always worried about the next year and that’s why we recruit heavily twice a year.”
The fall recruitment dinner will take place at the station on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. and Tamborelle is hoping to see a large class of Cornell students who want to make an impact in their new community.
Ray Bally ’19 said that “every call we get has its challenges,” though these challenges have provided learning experiences — and made volunteering more rewarding and enjoyable.
“Challenges are both physical, such as managing the heat of a fire or climbing our 75-foot ladder, or mental, such as focusing on a patient’s responses or determining the best way to stabilize a crashed car,” Bally said. “Learning to manage and address these challenges is what this work is about.”
Most of the difficulties of his job come not during emergencies but after, he said.
“It’s essential to review my actions, to recognize my successes, but more importantly, areas in which I could have been better,” he said.
While the work that the volunteers do is often in high-stress environments and may seem daunting, new volunteers are not expected to have prior experience in firefighting or emergency response.
“All that is required of a person is that you show up with a positive attitude, a willingness to learn and take instruction and ready to take pride in your work,” Bally said.
Because so many volunteers are students, the program is designed with flexibility for students, who may be concerned with the time commitment. “It is challenging to balance both, but doable,” Berger said.
Savoy said volunteering for the department has helped her learn about Ithaca and meet people who are passionate about the same things she is.
“I was having a hard time finding other students who were interested in similar activities,” Savoy said. “I had always been interested in physically challenging sports, and firefighting seemed like another great challenge.”
“As a female, I was intimidated at first, but the community at Cayuga Heights really helped me transition to living here in Ithaca,” she added.
“This fire department provides a unique experience for Cornell students,” Berger said. “Within a year, we can take someone with zero prior experience and train them to exceptional standards where they can enter a burning building. We impact our community on a daily basis, trying to change lives for the better.”
Tamborelle, the chief, met his wife at the firestation when she was a Cornell student, and his four children now play with him and the other firefighters at the station.
Some student volunteers have gone on to work as paid firefighters at the New York City Fire Department, in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C. Others, he said, hang their helmets in their offices or pull them out of boxes in their attics to show their children.
Regardless, Tamborelle said, “that experience becomes a part of their lives.”