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Davis

Davis, California

Thursday, September 16, 2021

UCD student firefighters serve community

When there is an emergency on campus, the call will most likely start an alarm buzzing through the halls of Station 34 at the UC Davis Fire Department.

There, in less than one minute a team of UCD firefighters will get their gear together and pile into the fire truck. But there is something unique about these firefighters – they are also some of the students walking to classes on campus everyday.

“I never thought I’d be doing this in college,” said Chelsea Johnstone, senior exercise biology major, who is starting her second year as a student firefighter at UC Davis.

The UC Davis Student Resident Firefighter program, which began in 1955, allows students to train, work and live among career firefighters.

“What we learned, it’s nice to be able to pass it on to them. And its good having the extra help,” said Ben Rizzo, a career firefighter and managerial economics graduate.

The department has about 30 career firefighters and recruits new student firefighters every two years with an average of 15 students from all majors and experience levels.

Altogether, they serve and take emergency calls from structural, wild land and chemical spills, throughout Yolo County and the Davis campus.

Currently, the program is one of only three such programs in the United States. The other two are at Clemson University in South Carolina and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

“It’s a great unique program, a lot of people come in here and they come to love it,” said Martin Smith, a senior political science major.

Like Johnstone, Smith, who is now a senior student resident firefighter, did not plan on entering the program when he came to UCD.

“I thought ‘that’s kinda neat’ and from there went through the application process, was lucky enough, and moved in my sophomore year,” Smith said.

With no fire science major on campus, just one of the benefits of this program is earning a Firefighter 1, State Marshall Certificate, which is “key” when applying for fire service jobs.

While a majority of student firefighters go on to fire service careers, the program emphasizes that no experience is necessary to apply. Students are issued all the necessary gear and equipment and given a dorm room at the firehouse. In exchange, they are required to work an average of 80 hours per month in 14 or 24-hour shifts around their class schedule.

“It’s a balance. We obviously go to school during the day and work nights and weekends. It doesn’t interfere with school,” Johnstone said.

An average shift starts at 8 a.m. with rig and equipment checks followed with training and inspections. Training can be anything from connecting to a hydrant to a full wildland simulation fire.

Then it’s off to the Activities and Recreation Center, where every student firefighter has a pass, for cardio and exercise.

In the afternoons, additional inspections, drills and training follow. The evenings are when career and student firefighters will wind down with a meal together, one of the many traditions at the firehouse.

“I can usually do a good pasta. Or pretty much grill anything,” said Rizzo, who has worked for the UCD Fire Department for four years.

Nights are reserved for homework, study and relaxing. Shifts continue throughout holiday seasons and are flexible to the alarms and calls that signal a firefighter to be ready within a moment’s notice.

“Calls happen throughout the day and we’re going to respond, whether we’re at the ARC, or here, or out doing training drills,” Johnstone said.

The intensive training and practice ensures that student firefighters are prepared for whatever situation comes their way.

“The first time going out on a ladder structure call…it’s fast paced, you’ve got to hit the ground running, and it’s a bit nerve wracking,” Smith said.

Johnstone said she felt “nervous anxiety” on her first call.

“I knew exactly what to do when we got there, its just like you see the smoke and flames, you feel the heat for the first time. Instead of simulating heat, you’re actually next to a burning car or wild land fire,” she said.

Most student firefighters say all the hard work is worth it.

“Just the experience you get and the friendships you make here, it’s a very unique college experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Johnstone said.

Applications will be accepted until Feb. 5. A physical fitness test, interviews and a three-week academy will determine the next group of student firefighters.

Applications are available online at financialaid.ucdavis.edu/jobs.

JESSY WEI can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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