When thinking of things I’ve typically had to run out and do at a moment’s notice, jumping into firefighting boots and hopping into an engine to respond to an emergency is certainly not one of them.
Guerrero Lopez, fifth-year political science and sociology double major, is a senior student resident firefighter who has been living at the UC Davis Fire Department for three years. For him, routinely interrupting his studies to answer calls that have been dispatched to Station 34 is part of his job and lifestyle.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing — if you’re in the shower or eating dinner and you get a call, you’ve got to go,” Lopez said. “The goal is to get all your gear on and get on the engine in less than a minute.”
I stopped by the UC Davis fire department on a Thursday evening for a tour of the station and to get an idea of what the daily routine of a student firefighter was like. Lopez was not on shift on this particular night, which turned out to be convenient, given that the on-shift firefighters had to leave during the tour to attend to a bike accident.
Student resident firefighters work two days a week and rotate with two other teams that consist of a captain, two career firefighters, a senior resident student firefighter and five student resident firefighters. In exchange for staffing the station’s multiple engines and trucks, students get their own room in the firehouse and sufficient training to have a competitive edge as a career firefighter.
The student residents live on the upper floor of Station 34, which is complete with their own poker room, study room and TV room.
“We live here, so during nights like tonight when I’m not really working, I can study or just hang out,” Lopez said.
However, even when students are not on shift, there are opportunities to take part in the action at the station and earn some extra money at the same time.
“We call it ‘jumping calls,’” Lopez said. “If a call comes in and you’re here and you’re fast enough to get down here, get your stuff on and get on the engine on time, you can make money that way. There’s five spots on the engine, and it’s first-come, first-serve.”
Which is what happened when the bike accident call came in. A student who had just been inside eating dinner ran into the garage where we were, quickly established that there was a seat available on the engine, threw on his jacket, boots, pants and hat over his jeans and rushed out with the rest.
“I try to keep socks in here, so if I’m caught off guard like that I’m not stuck out on a call wearing boots without them,” Lopez said while showing me the cubbies each firefighter had for all of their gear.
After the engine left, Lopez showed me around the rest of the vehicles and the equipment that came with them — ladders that extend to over a hundred feet, airbags that expand to lift up cars, breathing apparatuses and the reputable jaws of life.
“I’ve never used them on a call,” said Michael McCartney, another senior resident student, of the heavy tool used to pry open smashed cars to rescue a person trapped inside. “One time I arrived on the scene of a car accident, and the person was standing outside the car, fine. I was of course glad they were fine! But I still wanted to use them.”
Lopez and McCartney demonstrated professional knowledge of rescue equipment, noting that it took weeks to be familiarized with and much longer to master.
“When you’re testing, there’s all this pressure to remember how everything works, all by yourself,” Lopez said. “But on a real call, everyone’s there to help each other out and make it a group effort.”
The trusty team dynamic at the firehouse was indeed noticeable just from being around for a few hours. The station was more than just housing for those with a shared interest; the student firefighters and career firefighters seemed to form a familial unit.
“Everybody on your shift becomes a second family,” said David Anderson, a career firefighter who was hired full-time after spending four years in the student resident program. “I feel like when people leave professions they miss aspects of the job. When you talk to guys here who have retired, it comes down to really missing the people.”
After allowing me to stop them to ask a few questions, McCartney and Anderson continued preparing for their drill of the evening, a simulation of a roof ventilation procedure that allows rising gases to escape to avoid an explosion.
“When we’re here on shift and we aren’t out on calls, we come out here to train,” Lopez said while watching McCartney and Anderson don their breathing apparatuses, locate the weak areas and support beams of a practice rooftop, and cut large squares into it with a chainsaw. “The drills aren’t just to kill time.”
Another part of training any given night could be to navigate through a confined space drill, a sort of labyrinth designed to prepare firefighters for finding their way out of tight, dark spaces with full gear on before the oxygen in their breathing apparatuses ran out.
“We’ll spend some weekend nights doing training versus going out and having fun, but we make those sacrifices because the benefits outweigh the costs,” Lopez said.
For Lopez, the student resident firefighter program has more than enhanced his time at UC Davis. Upon his graduation in June, he will leave with a double degree and an ample amount of valuable firefighter training and experience.
“I love being able to use my experiences and my abilities in a way that helps others,” Lopez said. “I never wanted a sedentary job, I always wanted one where I could be active. It’s fun and exciting work.”
The UC Davis Student Resident Firefighter program is now accepting applications, which are available at fire.ucdavis.edu/student-resident-fire-fighter-program.
LANI CHAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.