College-age firefighters balance work and flames

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 1, 2014
College-age students make up about half of the Boone County Fire Protection District's 250 volunteers. Although that means high turnover for the fire district, the agency says it's worth it.

Student firefighter from Columbia Missourian on Vimeo.

COLUMBIA — Darren Day used to walk into classes at MU exhausted on Friday mornings, look around at his equally weary classmates and realize he and his peers weren't tired for the same reason.

While his classmates had been up late studying or partying, Day had been out fighting fires.

Day is one of about 250 volunteer firefighters at the Boone County Fire Protection District, which covers approximately 500 square miles and is the largest volunteer fire department in the state. 

The volunteers are all ages, but about half are 18 to 25, some of whom volunteer while pursuing a college degree. While college students create a constant turnover for the fire district, they also provide an inflow of volunteers, as students continue to move in and out of the city.

“(They’re) not really tied down to anything, (they) want to do something fun, learn how to be a firefighter, maybe turn that into career skills,” said Josh Creamer, recruitment and retention coordinator for the district.

One of the benefits for college-age volunteers is the free housing the Fire District offers. Each fire station includes dorm-style rooms, where about eight volunteers get a room for free. The fire station becomes their home, and they respond to calls whenever possible.

“That younger, college-age demographic is coming from out of the area; they don’t have a place to live,” Creamer said. “So this option is appealing to them.”

The living arrangement also benefits citizens, Creamer said, because volunteers can respond to calls much quicker than if they lived far from their equipment. While the average volunteer may respond to about seven calls a month, those who live at the stations can respond to about 30 calls a month.

Managing the turnover

Every year, the Fire District holds two training academies and brings in about 40 new people overall, 20 during each academy. That helps make up for the approximately 20 people who leave each year.

And by increasing the number of volunteers, each individual volunteer is required to give less of his or her time, Creamer said. That's important for a volunteer who's also trying to keep up with classwork.

About half of the volunteers who leave each year are in the 18 to 25 age range. Although the fire district wants people to stay a long time, Creamer said, the turnover is manageable and worth it: The new volunteers bring enthusiasm, passion and a willingness to learn.

At any given time, about 30 percent of volunteers are in their first year of experience, he said. Most of the time, a mix of experienced and relatively inexperienced volunteers will respond to a call. There is usually an officer, who must have at least five years of fire experience, on every call, he said.

While a lot of other volunteer departments are understaffed, the fire district has never had a problem getting people to apply, he said. During the last several recruitments, about 55 to 70 have interviewed for the available 20 spots.

Elaine Gibbs, 23, decided to apply to the fire district in November 2010 after watching her twin brother join a few months prior. She said she also wanted the chance to help her community.

"I liked that I was able to help people on a daily basis, and I loved that every call was something different," Gibbs said.

Originally from Columbia, Gibbs is a health sciences major at MU and a lieutenant with the fire district. She first moved into Fire Station No. 8 in March 2011 during her recruit training. After six months, she wanted to move to a busier fire station to gain more experience, so she moved to Station No. 1 and stayed for a year and a half. She moved out of the station for a year because she was busy with school and work but then moved into Station No. 12 in March, about a month before she was promoted to lieutenant.

The Fire District has become a huge part of her life, she said. However, it's not always easy. Gibbs said the hardest part about being in the Fire District is dealing with some of the difficult and sad situations the volunteers witness. When an emergency has an unhappy ending, she has to move on and learn from it.

"I've gotten used to accepting that we always do our best and that we did all that we could," she said.

Years of experience

Day first became interested in the fire district after talking with his childhood friend, Anthony Poehlmann, who was a few years older than Day and already volunteering with the Fire District. Poehlmann showed Day around the fire station and sometimes took Day with him when he responded to calls. Day said he "caught the bug."

Day wasn’t even 18, the required age for firefighters, when he started the recruit program. Just a month after graduating from high school, he started his training and graduated from the program in October 1999. Then in January of his freshman year at MU, he moved into Fire Station No. 5.

Freshman year was pretty rough, Day said. He took 15 credit hours, trained with the fire district, worked on his EMT license through the district and worked a few jobs. The recruit program met Monday and Wednesday evenings and every other weekend for about three months.

“It was a challenge,” he said. “But it wasn’t one that I saw as a challenge at the time because I enjoyed it so much."

Day spent the next four and a half years living in a fire station. He juggled school and volunteering, answering emergency calls day and night.

“(I thought), how cool is it that I’m 19 and they trust me to drive a fire truck?” he said. “I just thought it was the neatest thing in the world.”

He liked the unexpected — like cutting cars apart during a rescue — the never knowing what was going to happen and always having to be on his toes.

Gratification from the work came in different guises, like the time he was called to put out a fire in a farmer’s basement. Although there was minimal fire damage to the house, the smoke damage left the house uninhabitable for the farmer and his wife.

As luck had it, Poehlmann rented a house not far from the damaged house, and the owner of Poehlmann's house owned another home down the street. The two firefighters made arrangements for the farmer and his wife to live in the empty house while the smoke-damaged house was being cleaned.

To this day, when the farmer runs into Day, he thanks him for saving his house.

“To have that experience as a college student taught me that first of all, things are so much bigger than me,” Day said. “That’s not an experience I would have had at a club at MU.”

Fifteen years later, Day still volunteers. He's a captain at Station No. 12 at 980 El Chaparral Ave., where he’s been since 2013. The position is unpaid, and he splits his time between working at the Fire District, being a stay-at-home dad and teaching online business classes at Central Methodist University.

Day calls himself a "lifer."

"People don’t really know that about themselves until they get hooked," he said. "People don’t anticipate all of the experiences, the training and the family you become a part of when you volunteer.”

Go to class, or take the call?

Lindsey Gregory, 21, had heard the fire district was like a big family but didn’t believe it until the day she had a minor car accident.

Gregory, a junior at MU, decided to join the fire district as a freshman when she couldn’t find anywhere on or around campus to use her EMT license. She was accepted into the program in December 2011 and officially started her training Feb. 7, 2012.

She graduated from the training program in May 2012, and shortly after moved into Fire Station No. 8 where she lived for five months. In September 2012, she moved to Station No.  14 and lived there for a year and a half.

And then there was that bad day in August 2012 when the bumper on her car came off in a car accident. When a fellow firefighter called her about something unrelated, he could tell she was crying and asked what was wrong. Five minutes later he was there, helping her fix the bumper.

“These are the people who are going to drop anything when someone in the community needs help,” she said. “Or if you need help.”

But even with all of its benefits, volunteering in the fire district and being a student sometimes presented its own set of challenges.

Sometimes Gregory would receive a call at 7:15 a.m. and also have a class at 8 a.m. She had to choose between going to class or going to help someone who was struggling to breathe.

“Every time, I went to the call,” she said.

Gregory once got a call at 7:15 a.m. and had to respond to a man in his 40s who died from a heart attack. She recalls sobbing the entire 20-minute walk to her 9 a.m. class.

She's found the best way to handle the emotions is by talking with someone, usually someone who is also in the Fire District. Other volunteers know what she's going through and understand the need to talk about the experiences, she said.

Recently, Gregory said, she’s seen other MU students involved on campus and has wondered whether she might have missed out on part of the college experience. But the upside was great.

“It brought so many great opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” she said. “I don’t live the typical college life, and it’s been awesome.”

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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