IUP students study by day, man fire station at night
When a call comes in to the Indiana Fire Association's White Township substation after midnight, four firefighters spring from their second-floor beds, slide down a pole into the truck bay, grab their gear and head out.
Students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, they are part of a bunk-in program that provides firefighters experience and a free place to live.
In exchange, they are on call from 10 p.m.-6 a.m. daily and rotate station chores, including shoveling snow and mowing grass.
“It's like a fraternity house — without the beer and the girls,” said Paul Koons, fire association administrator.
Their volunteer work saves the students a minimum of $2,506 per semester, IUP's least expensive on-campus housing option, according to its website.
But the savings are secondary, according to the group of live-in firefighters.
Adam Young, 21, of DuBois; Thomas Williams, 22, of Cetronia, Lehigh County; Mike Kreshalk, 20, of Ebensburg; and Tyler McLaurin, 22, of Hastings, Cambria County, are safety science majors who volunteer with their hometown fire departments.
They expect to volunteer and possibly fight fires professionally in the future.
Young said the bunk-in option allows them to go on more calls.
“We pretty much live a career firefighter position here. You definitely get a feel for what it's like. They (professionals) get a paycheck; we get a room,” Young said.
Williams and Young have commercial driver's licenses and can pull the trucks out of the bay without waiting for others to arrive.
“Even if I had to pay, I would probably still live here. I really enjoy what we do,” Williams said. “We eat together; we train together. If we get a call at night, I know who I'm working with.
“We are really good friends. If you live in a dorm room, you might be friends. Here you have their lives in your hands and vice versa,” Williams said.
The students quickly build a camaraderie with their fellow firefighters, who often drop in to chat or share a meal.
Kreshalk said most professors honor excuses if the students miss class because of a fire call.
“They run a lot of calls here. You just get so much experience,” he said.
The program began in 2006, when the department built the station and included six live-in rooms, Koons said. The program is full most semesters.
The live-in option is not a training ground, Koons said.
“We don't want to be a stepping stone and resume filler. We wanted to tap into young, active volunteers at IUP that had training,” he said. “We wanted to expedite our response time and increase our ranks. Mandated requirements for training don't make it easy (to recruit).”
Across Pennsylvania, the ranks of volunteer firefighters have decreased from about 300,000 in 1977 to between 50,000 and 60,000, state Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said.
Live-in programs typically attract students involved in firefighting who likely will stick with it during their college years, even without a residential option, he said.
“It would be another tool in the (recruiting) toolbox, if the fire department is blessed to have a college in their backyard,” Mann said.
McLaurin said younger members are aware that volunteer firefighters are growing in age and shrinking in numbers.
“We are trying to help recruit, so that when we leave, they can find people to replace us,” he said.
Allegheny County fire departments with live-in options include Monroeville, Penn Hills, Wexford, Aspinwall and Edgewood.
South Greensburg has had a bunk-in program for seven years. Typically, two or three bunks are occupied by area college students, said fire Chief Eric Hardy.
“We prefer them to have experience, but we will train them if they can make the time commitment,” he said.
Live-in students have come from Westmoreland County Community College, Pitt at Greensburg, California University of Pennsylvania and St. Vincent College, many in fire service programs.
“We have guys here non-stop. Our response time is out the door in less than a minute,” Hardy said.
Fayette County has no residential programs, according to Mike Kelecic, president of the county fireman's association.
In White Township, live-ins must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA and adhere to rules about alcohol consumption and guest privileges.
Many students go on to careers in safety science, criminology or nursing, Koons said.
In 2011, three former students were among five live-in firefighters honored by IUP's Council of Trustees for rescuing a man from a fire that October.
“IUP's partnership with the Indiana Fire Association is a superb example of a good community partnership,” said IUP President Michael Driscoll. “While they are making our community safer, they are getting support for their studies with housing provided by the IFA, learning about leadership and applying their classroom education in the world. It doesn't get any better than that.”
The residential program at the Richland Township department in Cambria County sometimes has a mix of University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown students, local paramedics and volunteers who commute to professional firefighting jobs.
Capt. Phil Kapelewski was a firefighter in New Kensington, his hometown, before volunteering for the bunk-in program while a UPJ student.
Kapelewski said the station's annual 900 to 1,200 calls appeal to those looking to gain experience and possibly work in the field.
“We have the response time of a career department,” he said.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.