Amherst Fire Department trains UMass students in auxiliary force

By Andy Castillo

(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)
(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

Reed Allen was on a stretcher in an ambulance, hooked up to a pulse oximeter – a device used to track a patient’s heart rate. Around him, students learn about the proper response procedures to emergency cardiac situations.

“When stuff goes downhill, they call us,” said Allen, a University of Massachusetts senior studying public health who also works as an Emergency Medical Technician in Springfield. He is with the Amherst Fire Department’s North Station, home of Engine Company 3, an auxiliary force of the department that is composed entirely of UMass student volunteers.

The group holds weekly drills on Thursday nights, which include training in fire ventilation and hose line operations, emergency medical procedures and apparatus driver training. Outside in the cold, students are learning how to properly raise ladders and haul tools up to rooftops using ropes. Another group is upstairs inside of the station learning how to tie knots.

“It’s real world training in an environment you can afford to make mistakes in,” said Ben Savage, a history major who has been on the force for about two years. “It’s a really good time, you make friends you’ll have for the rest of your life.”

The student force is split up into five different companies, with each one working one overnight shift per week so that Engine 3, the company’s specified firefighting apparatus, is always manned. During weekends, the force runs 24-hour shifts.

“I’ve seen everything from drunk college students to fires and fatal accidents,” said Robert Coffman, deputy chief of the company and a senior studying building construction technology. “We certainly do our fair share of calls.”

Coffman completed the Massachusetts Fire Academy through AFD about two years ago, and is finishing his EMT certification this year.

“It runs the gamut,” Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson said. “They respond to all emergencies – fire, medical, auto accidents, burst pipes and lost hikers.”

The department runs about 5,700 calls per year, of which roughly 75 to 80 percent are EMS related.

“They provide an important support function for us,” Nelson said. “Fire and rescue service is very labor intensive, at an incident, we can run out of people quickly – they provide a resource that keeps the permanent force from being spread too thin.”

The auxiliary force began during spring semester 1953, after the fire chief at the time recognized the need for additional manpower to support campus operations. Despite the lack of equipment, the student force quickly became an established part of AFD. In 1975, the North Fire Station opened, which could house eight student firefighters for overnight shifts.

Today, Engine 3 is composed of about 25 members, all of whom undergo a strenuous interview process before being accepted as firefighters.

According to Matt Rakoski, a lieutenant on the student force, the group is a continuation of public service learned in boy scouts. Many of the members plan to fight fires full-time after college.

“I definitely want to be a career firefighter,” said Coffman. “100 percent.”

Others like Bailey Ingalls, who is a sophomore studying biochemistry and Spanish and is also on the UMass women’s hockey team, are in the company because of family tradition.

“My dad was a firefighter,” she said. “When you’re driving the engine, it fulfills every 6-year-old craving you’ve ever had – it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Interested students can find more information and fill out an application at:

Andy Castillo can be reached at [email protected]