The dedication and commitment of the student force
On a dark January evening, you may have seen the student firefighters of Engine Company 3 raising ladders and laying hose at the Campus Center parking garage amid softly falling snow.
The drills are part of “Wonder Week,” a 70-hour boot camp held at the start of each semester that covers every aspect of fighting fires.
The Student Volunteer Force has been an auxiliary of the Amherst Fire Department since 1953. They are fully qualified according to national standards to save your life.
The Student Force has its own engine, and senior members and officers live on their own floor in the station on East Pleasant Street. Four fighters from the 36-member force staff each overnight shift, which begins with equipment checks and drills to make certain their skills are second nature. On nights they aren’t on duty, student firefighters are still on call in case there is a fire that requires the whole Amherst force.
“I take school very seriously,” says Captain Kaitlin Eaton, a senior pursuing a major in anthropology, a minor in education, and a certificate in native studies. No matter what their major, fighting fires as a student takes a high degree of dedication. The greatest challenge they face is balancing service with school: the Halloween 2011 nor’easter occurred in the middle of midterms, and going in for a quiz in a 9 a.m. class after they’ve been out for a 4 a.m. call asks for heroic stamina.
Confronting life-threatening situations together creates a bond that lasts long after the students hang tassels from their helmets and ride to commencement on Engine No. 3. “At the end of the day, we know we can always rely on each other,” enthuses Eaton.
Student firefighters have to have self-sufficiency and a great sense of selflessness at the same time. Eaton, at 5’2” and 120 pounds, found that technique was just as important as brute strength. “You have to trust yourself, trust your training, and trust your officers,” she says. “You don’t know what you are capable of. If you are determined enough, you can do anything.”