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Morrisville State College students answer the call, volunteer with local fire department

MORRISVILLE, N.Y.—Kayla Walker’s days and nights aren’t like those of a typical college student.

When her pager sounds, the 21-year-old Morrisville State College student springs in to action swapping her textbooks and class notes for a reflective jacket and rescue gear.

As a member of the Morrisville Fire Department, Walker is on call waiting to save lives 24-hours a day, seven days a week, volunteering hundreds of hours to protect the Morrisville community while she’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Walker, of Oneida, is among those students balancing life as a volunteer student firefighter. This year, one-third of Morrisville Fire Chief Michael Bischoff’s 38-member department, staffed solely by volunteers, is comprised of Morrisville State College students. Nine, currently in training, will soon join eight veterans on the force.

As the first line of defense in emergencies, including structure fires, medical emergencies, and motor vehicle accidents, volunteer firefighters play a critical role in the community.

“The number of students who have volunteered to protect their adopted community this year is phenomenal,” said Bischoff who, entering his third year as chief, has never seen such a large interest.

“Morrisville students are such a wonderful resource and provide excellent manpower to our department.”

The rise in student volunteers comes at a critical time when overall numbers are declining while the demand for volunteer firefighters continues to rise.

Bischoff is feeling the crunch in his department. And it’s a dilemma he is not facing alone. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide is shrinking.

“More than 70 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers,” Bischoff said. “It’s a great statistic that gives us an idea of how many volunteers are needed, yet there is a fight for volunteers today.”

Plenty of factors come in to play for the slimming numbers including the issue of time, less flexible work schedules, and increased training demands.

Bischoff’s biggest challenge is staffing during the day because many of his members work daytime hours and some have jobs far from home.

That’s where Morrisville State College students fill a critical need.

“They carpool. They ride their bikes to the station. Minutes are vital and they are already right here,” said Bischoff, referring to the station less than a mile away from the campus.

The overall time commitment involved with being a volunteer firefighter has grown exponentially in recent years as training hours increase to compensate for more complicated hazards, such as chemical fires and spills.

“There is a lot of training required for volunteer emergency responders today,” Bischoff said. “That discourages people who don’t have that time to commit to a volunteer position.”

On top of her busy schedule, Walker is also taking classes to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with a local ambulance crew.

The nine recruits completing Firefighter I, a basic training course for all volunteer firefighters, put in 12 hours of training every week that count toward the 100 hours they need to qualify as a New York state certified interior firefighter.

Additionally, all volunteers are required to participate in department training for two to three hours every Tuesday night.

Walker, who tries to respond to as many calls as possible, said she goes out on about 20-25 calls per month.

Bischoff is trying to make it easier for students interested in joining his department. He applied for a grant through FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) SAFER program (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) specifically for MSC students who volunteer with the Morrisville Fire Department. Bischoff said the federal grant money, to help recruit and retain its emergency responders, would be used to offset tuition for students who qualify under the stated grant guidelines.

There is also a grant program available to students through the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) that may encourage more students to join. The initiative, the FASNY Higher Education Learning Plan (HELP), is a first-ever college tuition reimbursement program for the volunteer fire service throughout the state.

Despite the number of hours involved with training, students’ strong commitment keeps them serving the community.
Walker, who grew up watching her father, Reay Walker, fight fires in the city of Oneida, joined the department shortly after she started college. She completed her firefighter training last year and is now on the interior squad, which means she can enter buildings to fight fires and rescue people inside.

“It was something I always had in the back of my mind to do,” Walker said. “I enjoy helping the community.”

That’s what prompted Cody Gould, 19, of Derby, a diesel technology student and one of the new recruits, to join too. “It’s a rewarding experience and something nice to do in the community.”

Walker, who remembers waiting for her father to return from his shift at the fire station before she could open her Christmas presents, knows the schedule can be demanding.

“An afternoon planning on doing homework can be interrupted at a moment’s notice by a call,” she said.

And more than once, she has returned from a call in the early morning hours with just enough time grab a few hours of sleep and make it to an 8 a.m. class.

Despite the challenges, she has found a way to balance her studies, life as a firefighter and as a member of the college’s softball team. “You need to have really good organizational skills and you have to be able to budget your time.”

During softball season practices, her coach and teammates also know when her pager sounds it means they’ll have to find a sub for her on first base.

When calls spill into class time, Walker puts her studies first when determining which calls she can answer.

While students are ideal to supplementing his department, Bischoff’s volunteer roster gets pretty lean when classes are not in session and students go home for breaks.

Ideally, he would like to beef up his roster of volunteers to 80 to help answer an average of 250 calls the department receives a year. Already this year, that number has climbed to 349. The Morrisville Fire Department protects approximately 5,000 people in an area of 42.5 square miles.

When there isn’t a sufficient number of volunteers to respond to calls, departments rely on the mutual aid system with neighboring volunteer departments that act as backup, so calls never go unanswered.

Despite long hours, dangerous work and no paycheck at the end of the week, volunteers continue to put their time and lives on the line.

At the heart of volunteers is true commitment and dedication. The drive to help others is why Walker sticks around. “It’s very rewarding,” she said. “I really enjoy helping in the community.”

Students also recognize that their experiences as firefighters are personally beneficial.

“It is a way to get involved in the community,” Walker said. “It is also a great feeling being part of the fire department family.”

Although it is a challenge for Bischoff to find lifetime members because students generally leave after they receive their two- or four-year degrees, he views it in a positive light. “I see it this way—I’ve put another trained firefighter out there.”

But he doesn’t lose all of them. Thomas Swart, a 2009 information technology: network administration bachelor degree graduate, stayed on and is now a first lieutenant in the department.

After she graduates, Walker also plans to remain with the department while she pursues a career as an arson investigator.

In addition to responding to emergencies, the Morrisville Fire Department is involved with fire protection in local schools and participates in numerous fundraising activities.

Bischoff said the department is always looking for volunteers with or without experience. For more information about becoming a volunteer with the Village of Morrisville Fire Department, call Chief Bischoff at 315.684.9628.

Morrisville State College sets the world in motion for students. Curriculums are enriched with applied learning and pave the way for opportunity at both the Morrisville and Norwich campuses. An action-oriented, interactive learning lab, the college is a national leader in technology. Lauded for its exemplary, innovative and effective community service programs, the college was named to the 2012 President’s Higher Community Service Honor Roll. Visit www.morrisville.edu to experience, Morrisville in motion.