Three UD students share their experiences as volunteer firefighters
One fall afternoon, a handful of volunteer firefighters were scattered around Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder Company Station 9. University of Delaware students Olivia Alexander, Matthew Heebner and Conor Sproat were among the group, waiting for the inevitable.
After the alarms blared, the sequence from the station to the scene was a blur. Details spilled over the two-way radio as the firefighters suited up and decided how many trucks should respond. In less than two minutes they were dressed and raced off to help a person reportedly having cardiac arrest at a motel, about a mile away, in Newark.
All three of them said they sometimes still get nervous when a call comes in. In the moment, you can’t think about that though. Heebner said you have to take the situation for what it is.
“You can’t dwell on what you can’t change, but focus on what you can change,” he said. “So when we roll up to a scene where somebody has been really badly hit or badly burned or significant loss of property value, the best thing we can do is stay objective. You almost have to just take yourself out of the situation mentally.”
The name Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company comes from the volcano Mount Etna (spelled Aetna in Latin) in Sicily, Italy. The first firehouse opened in 1891 at 26 Academy Street. Since then, the company has expanded to four stations: Station 7 on Thorne Lane, Station 8 on Ogletown Rd., Station 9 on the corner of Academy and East Delaware Ave. and Station 10 on Old County Road in Glasgow. The original station is still in use for ambulances and as sleeping quarters for overnight shifts.
In 2018, a total of 3027 fire and rescue calls were received between all four stations. Teams are dispatched for all types of emergencies, from cats stuck in trees to fatal car accidents.
About 70 percent of firefighters across the nation are volunteers. Aetna has 16 full-time employees (fire fighting and emergency medical services) and about 100 part-time employees. Station 9 has 60 active firefighting volunteers — ranging from the fire chief to college students.
Volunteers can serve in a few main roles. Members respond to emergency calls and handle administrative duties like fundraising and marketing. Associate members also assist with administrative tasks, but do not respond to emergency calls. For volunteers that have previous training, but do want to become members, they can serve in the ride-along position.
Alexander, Heebner and Sproat are involved in different capacities, but all of them have committed much of their already busy schedules to serve the local community.
Last year, the station created a new opportunity called the Live-In Program. In exchange for being on call for a few night shifts (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) each week, live-ins are provided with free housing. Alexander, a junior studying neuroscience, currently volunteers in this role.
At 16, Alexander became a volunteer firefighter for a station near her hometown of Thiells, New York. She was inspired by her uncle who worked for the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) and her older brother, who became a volunteer.
Her family was a bit hesitant initially about her decision because she is a woman. Alexander said that just drives her to serve.
“The whole time you’re here, you’re overcoming a stereotype, that you’re never going to let yourself slack off because you want to prove to people that this is a job that anyone can do,” she said. “I hope that one day it’s equal and it won’t be so male dominated.”
Once she started at UD, she settled into a routine with her school work, her job, a new group of friends and activities through Alpha Phi Omega, the co-ed service fraternity. But something was missing. So one day she marched up to the nearest firehouse, knocked on the door and found out how to get involved.
As part of the program, Alexander lives with three other UD students in an apartment near the firehouse. The group is paged whenever there is an emergency. Alexander said it did take some time to adjust.
“The pagers are very loud, which is very good because I am a heavy sleeper,” she said. “I’m normally up for half of my shift anyway just studying until 3 a.m., or watching my Netflix.”
Although the night shifts are her primary responsibility, it’s not uncommon to find Alexander around the firehouse between classes and on the weekend. She also attends the weekly trainings on Wednesday nights.
The trainings ensure Aetna’s emergency responders keep updated on the skills and tools they may need in the field. Past trainings have covered CPR, basic fire fighting techniques and how to use the Jaws of Life to remove a person from a vehicle.
She said juggling this schedule along with her other responsibilities as a student have tested her time management skills.
“I have calendars everywhere and reminders on my phone because if I forget one thing it just throws everything off,” she said. “So It’s a lot of planning and I literally have some days where I’ll plan out schedules of half hour time slots to remember to eat.”
Sproat, a senior studying criminal justice, serves as a ride-along. He said for every bad call, there are pleasantly memorable calls as well. He fondly recollected a situation where a man in a motorized wheelchair called because his batteries died while he was on the road.
“We were able to give the gentleman a ride home,” Sproat said. “I just remember talking to him as we were waiting for the pickup truck to come back. He was very nice and he was very appreciative of what we were doing. When people tell you, you are doing a good job, it just makes you feel like everything you are doing is meaningful.”
Sproat has volunteered with the Aetna firehouse for the last two years. He estimates he spends about 30 hours a week at the station. He said his friends have a running gag among them, wondering where Sproat is, because he is seldom home and spends so much time at the firehouse.
He previously served near his hometown with a firehouse in Nassau County, New York. He decided not to become a member to ensure he would be able to keep up with his school work. Ironically, he said being around the firehouse has improved his grades.
“Last semester, I probably spent the most time out of my college career at the firehouse and that semester I had my best GPA overall,” Sproat said. “Because I was here, I was studying and the guys were helping me out with my tests and my quizzes, just helping me out with pointers.”
Mike Puglisi, a volunteer member, said the Station 9 firefighters are a family. For many, the firehouse becomes like a second home and the volunteers are a huge support system for one another.
“This is their homebase,” Puglisi said. “They can just go to class, come here and hang out during the day and provide some service to the community…. It’s also another avenue for those students that aren’t into the fraternity life or not into ROTC.”
Heebner, a junior studying mechanical engineering, is a member. Like the others, Heebner said he was called to serve because he wants to give back to the community. After college, his dream is to continue protecting others by working as an engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Originally from Montgomery, New Jersey, he started his journey as a firefighter while in high school. Once he got to UD, it wasn’t long before the urge to serve kicked in.
“I couldn’t stand not riding the trucks,” he said. “I’d see them going down Academy Street and think, that should be me. So I put in my application.”
The job they do is very difficult. It can be taxing on the body and mind as well as incredibly dangerous. At times they witness horrible tragedies.
Having these experiences — especially for many of the younger volunteers in their late teens and early 20s — has made them closer. They’ve experienced the good and the bad together, and work as a team whenever they are on the scene.
“It’s hard. It doesn’t get easier, but the family aspect here helps a lot,” Sproat said. “We definitely yell at each other like brothers and sisters, but at the end of the day we’re all in the back eating dinner together, laughing and joking around.”
How to get involved
Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder Company is always looking for more volunteers. There are so many ways for students to get involved. This includes:
- Emergency Medical Services (EMS)
- Community outreach and education
- Other projects and larger initiatives, like disaster management projects and fundraising
You do not need previous experience to get started. The firehouse can provide all required training and equipment to help students get certified. More information about available volunteer opportunities can be found on Aetna’s website. If you have specific questions please email email@example.com for membership, firstname.lastname@example.org for applications and email@example.com for the Live-In program.