Live-In EMTs Immerse in Their Profession

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue. Photos by Larry Kauffman, except as credited.

It’s not unusual for college students to live and study off campus. Only a few, though, find their student housing in a firehouse.

Several Lycoming County volunteer fire companies have instituted a “live-in EMT” program that offers Pennsylvania College of Technology students who have earned emergency medical technician certification the opportunity to live in the firehouses for free in return for helping to answer the stations’ ambulance calls.

Timothy S. Capella, a student in the emergency medical services major, is one of four students responsible for answering overnight ambulance calls at Willing Hand Hose Co. in Montoursville.

Seven students took advantage of the program – living in three firehouses – in Fall 2008. Most were working toward a degree in emergency medical services, immersed in what they hope will someday become a career.

“As a paramedic student, I’ve found myself living in the emergency services environment 24/7,” said Christopher A. Heiss, a second-year student stationed at the Willing Hand Hose Co. in Montoursville. “I go from classroom to the field or hospital setting, and come home to the fire department, where it starts all over again.”

But that experience – alongside saving thousands of dollars on board – draws the students to participate.

"As a paramedic student, I’ve found myself living in the emergency services environment 24/7"

Freshman Gage E. Lyons-McCracken, also stationed in Montoursville, said getting out and doing what he is studying is important to him. Though, like many of the students living in the firehouses, he has been involved with volunteer emergency services since he was in high school, he said: “Every new call is a teaching opportunity. No call is the same.”

Freshmen in the emergency medical services major must take several courses before being accepted into the professional phase of the Penn College program.

“Seeing it now will help when I start seeing it more in school,” said freshman Dustin C. Counsil, a freshman stationed at the Old Lycoming Township Volunteer Fire Co.

In addition to gaining experience, the students are also making important connections.

At Old Lycoming Township, Counsil and fellow freshman Bradley M. Kavetski share their bunkroom with a professional paramedic and emergency medical technician, as well as two of Williamsport’s paid firefighters, with whom they bonded quickly.

“Everyone is there to help and support you,” he said, noting some have become like father figures. “They ask, ‘Hey, did you get your homework done?’”

Lyons-McCracken said he has run calls with part-time faculty in the college’s paramedic technology program and is learning from second-year students Heiss and Timothy S. Capella, who share live-in quarters with him and Justin R. Germert, a student enrolled in the diesel technology: Mack emphasis major.

“They’ve been through what I’m doing,” he said. They not only help him learn from their experiences, but they also drill him on what they are learning in their classes.

Kenneth E. Gates, a 2008 Penn College graduate who lived at South Williamsport’s First Ward Fire Co., said he got many opportunities other students don’t, thanks to the station’s volunteers.

Christopher A. Heiss, foreground, says learning to study in a virtually public facility took some adjustment, but he and his three Penn College counterparts - background, from left: Gage E. Lyons-McCracken, Capella and Justin R. Gernert, have their own space for studying and relaxing.“The guys take you out to see different parts of the city,” he said. “I got to see a lot of Williamsport and the surrounding area that I wouldn’t have gotten to see (by living) on campus. It really made it a much better experience. I really had a lot of fun.”

Upperclassman Heiss and 2008 graduate Matthew P. Elliott, who lived in the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department facility, described the relationships they’ve formed with the station’s personnel as a brotherhood.

“It’s a tough career field,” Heiss said. “We see the worst of the worst and are faced with life-or-death situations. The brotherhood that evolves from living that kind of life is unparallel to anything I can describe. It’s an awesome feeling.”

Old Lycoming Township Volunteer Fire Co. Assistant Chief Charles E. Kiessling Jr. said his department implemented the program to help bolster its volunteer levels.

“We’ve recognized for some time now that volunteers are dwindling,” Kiessling said. Part of the reason, he said, is that training requirements in volunteer fire and emergency medical services have increased while many people must commit more and more time to their work. “It’s not just showing up to meetings and coming when the whistle blows. … People just don’t have the time anymore,” he said.

More photos from the shoot

Equipment stands ready for a call. Penn College students, from left, Justin R. Germert, Timothy S. Capella, Gage E. Lyons-McCracken and Christopher A. Heiss, say a lot of family-style meals are made in the kitchen of the Willing Hand Hose Co. in Montoursville. Firehouse pride at Montoursville's Willing Hand Hose Co. Four students - from left, Gernert, Capella, Lyons-McCracken and Heiss - help answer rescue and emergency medical calls at the Willing Hand Hose Co. in Montoursville, where they've developed a brotherhood with the company's members. Gernert is enrolled in the diesel technology: Mack emphasis major. The program is open to students in any major who have earned EMT certification. Most participants, including Gernert, joined their hometown  volunteer fire company during high school and chose to continue their service locally while enrolled. Zachary A. Groff, a student in the architectural technology major, answers calls for the Loyalsock Volunteer Fire Co.

Having the volunteers already in the building becomes especially valuable during overnight emergencies, when minutes count.

“Everybody has manpower issues,” said Tim Boush, chief of the Loyalsock Volunteer Fire Co., which initiated its live-in EMT program in the fall. “This is our way to help the company and the community get the trucks out quicker.”

The Loyalsock station accepted two applicants in Fall 2008. Boush said the company had talked for several years about implementing such a program. When the company renovated its facility, it took the opportunity to create living space for such a program.

Both said they have room for more live-in participants and would love to see a full house.

“It’s good experience,” Kiessling said. “If they’re going into nursing, or paramedic training, physician assistant, or other medical fields, this gives them good experience running both emergency and routine operations.”

“The live-in program is an example of how Penn College and the community have formed a partnership that directly supports the public safety. ... The community involvement, with mentoring provided by the volunteer and career fire-department and emergency-service providers, is a model example of how together we can foster the growth of our next generation of public-service workers,” said Mark A. Trueman, director of the college’s paramedic technology program.

While they are gaining valuable hands-on knowledge, the participants are – foremost – students, and balancing the duties can be a challenge.

“Studying in a firehouse takes time and effort to master,” Heiss said. “My first semester was definitely a huge adjustment to the lifestyle; however, I’ve since figured out the techniques of studying in a virtually public place and have performed successfully in the paramedic program.”

The firehouses offer wireless Internet access and quiet areas to help accommodate the students’ needs and allow them to work around their class schedules.

“Making time for extra studying (was a challenge),” Gates said. “It seemed like every time you’d sit down to get a little work done – to catch up – you’d get a call or something.”

Matthew P. Elliott, left, who lived in the Montgomery Volunteer Fire Department, and Kenneth E. Gates, who lived in South Williamsport's First Ward Fire Co., received their degrees in August. Photo by Jennifer A. Cline.

Sleep deprivation is a big problem, the students said, each recounting the common experience of falling asleep only to be awakened a short time later. And even though a call may take only an hour, Lyons-McCracken said, getting back to sleep is not easy. Then again, Counsil said the adrenaline rush of answering a call is what drew him to the profession.

“We can go weeks with a full night of sleep (every night) as well as go the same duration without sleep,” Heiss said. “I believe that is the toughest aspect of being a live-in student at a fire department.”

In addition to Internet access and study areas, the firehouses offer the students a lounge area, kitchen and laundry facilities. Some fire departments offer additional perks.

The Willing Hand company in Montoursville was the first in the area to offer the live-in program to students. Andrew Mattocks, ’06, was the first student to participate in the program in 2005. He’s now EMS lieutenant at the company, where he said participants first must become members of the fire company. A second application process for the live-in program includes reviewing the students’ professional credentials and academic records, as well as interviewing the potential participants. The students then hold the same rights as other members of their host departments, including training opportunities.

Heiss said the experience has helped him become well-rounded. It’s not for everyone, he said, and some of his bunkmates have not stayed long, but the memories he’s made with them will last a lifetime.

“The friendships I’ve developed at the firehouse are nothing short of a true brotherhood,” he said. “We’re a very tight group of people. We see elements of this world that the average person doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have to experience. After a bad call, it’s nice to know that a ‘brother’ is going to be there to talk to. We’re always there for each other. We’re the kind of brotherhood that are not only there for each other, but as well as for each other’s family and friends. I currently live with the individuals who will be in my wedding someday, as I will be in theirs.” ■