Student firefighters continue to balance school work, fighting fires

By Herb Scribner

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Captain Kaitlin Eaton of the Amherst Fire Department Student Force will always remember her first time in a live fire.

Working in the Springfield Burn Building – which hosts training drills for newcomer firefighters – Eaton dealt with live, stifling hot flames for the first time as a member of the volunteer force. Coming from a family of firefighters, Eaton quickly sprang into action by recalling her training and, possibly, her instincts.

“To have that experience, going into a burning building … was probably the most exhilarating experience [I’ve had], and I’ve never looked back after that,” said Eaton. “I never doubted engine three is where I belong.”

She consulted her training like she consults her professors, as she, like the rest of the Student Volunteer Force who ride on engine three, is a full-time, undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts.

“At times it can be challenging because I have a full course load … so that brings in a whole new set of time management, but it’s also very rewarding,” said Eaton. “I know that … if ever there’s [a] disruption during the weekend or anything like that, I know that I am doing something to give back to my school community and the community of Amherst. So it’s rewarding and challenging.”

Eaton is one of 23 members of the student force, who each spend one night per week on an overnight shift at the North Station in Amherst. On weekdays, the shift is from 5 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. the following morning, while on weekends the students are on call for 24 hours.

“You never know whether you’re going to be here for the whole night and get a good night sleep or whether you’re going to be out straight, no sleep, no work, so you definitely have to prepare for that,” said Josh Chretien, a junior at UMass, who plans on being a career firefighter after graduation.

Sometimes, the students’ on-call nights can consist of studying, sleeping or playing video games in the common area on the second floor of the station.

On those nights without sleep, the students can be called out to assist with dumpster fires, house fires or rope extractions – one of which happened on Feb. 16. Chretien was working his overnight shift when he and the team got a call to assist with a fallen victim on Bare Mountain in Amherst.

“It was definitely my greatest call I’ve ever been [on],” said Chretien. “You really feel a part of a team [because] if you fail carrying the patient, everyone fails carrying the patient. Everybody there was doing something, you were needed.”

When 22-year-old Scott Merrick fell some 25 feet on Bare Mountain, “upwards of 30 staff members” responded to the call, according to Chretien. AFD members, along with some from the South Hadley and Hadley Fire Departments, responded to the call, according to deputy chief Jacob Lees.

“By the end of the event, everybody was on that call from the town,” said Chretien.

But Chretien and Eaton both agreed that one of the best experiences they, as well as the rest of the staff, had was the 70-hour training sessions during the last week of summer. Billed as “Wonder Week” by Eaton, this training session includes drills in Springfield’s Burn Building as well as developing and training firefighting skills.

More than just building on the fundamentals of firefighting, Eaton and Chretien both admitted that these training sessions, as well as the time the staff spends during the week, assists the force in building trust for each other.

“They’re your lifeline,” said Chretien. “If you’re in fire and you were to go down, they’re the one dragging you out. The friendship you build goes well past the station.”

Eaton, who is a graduating senior looking forward to becoming an elementary school teacher, echoed Chretien’s sentiments.

“Even outside of work, we are a brotherhood,” said Eaton. “We can all rely on each other. We understand each other on a different level than maybe the outside world might. I know that if I ever need anything, I can call on my E3 brothers, past and present, to be there for me in my time in need.”

Recently, according to Eaton, the student force has been needed for assistance throughout all of Amherst. Because of the heavy call volume the AFD has been receiving, engine three has been asked to travel outside its usual borders by heading downtown and to Hampshire College, according to both Eaton and Lees.

“This has been quite the interesting year,” said Eaton.

Part of the interest comes back from October’s nor’easter and the heavy amount of calls the AFD received. Eaton recalled having to respond to a structure fire after the snowstorm.

Lees and Eaton also recalled fires from the UMass campus that the student force has responded to, including the Cance Hall fire in spring 2011 and the North Apartment fires in spring 2010. They also mentioned previous fires in the Townhouses apartment complex to which they responded, as well.

Even though they’re full-time students, they’re always being asked to fend off the fires. According to both Eaton and Chretien, little fear comes with it.

“You always run a risk, but there comes a time when you just have to trust your training and your team and get the job done,” said Eaton.

“There’s always that question in the back of your head, but it’s one of those things you’re trained not to put yourself in one of those situations,” said Chretien. “You can never control some things, but you train to not put yourself in that situation.”

Instead of fear, Lees, Eaton and Chretien admitted there’s somewhat of a kick of adrenaline that comes with getting a call.

“It’s what we’re here for. It’s fun,” said Chretien. “I’ve never not been excited to go on a call.”

The student force is currently recruiting and accepting applications until spring break. Applications can be found and sent through its website,

Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected]