Thursday, October 10, 2002

Dorm room’s the firehouse for these SMTC students

Published in the Current

Helping town taxpayers and budding firefighters, the Scarborough Fire Department’s live-in student program is entering its 16th year this fall.

Started in 1986 by then-Fire Chief Robert Carson and firefighter Don Jackson, the program allows students in the fire science course at Southern Maine Technical College to live rent-free in the town’s fire stations, in exchange for going on fire and rescue calls and doing maintenance and cleaning work around the station.

When it began, there was one student at Pleasant Hill Fire Station. Now there are 14 students scattered around town, and Fire Chief Michael Thurlow wants to expand it as space allows. Two of the students are women, and several are involved in courses for paramedics or law enforcement, as follow-up studies to fire science.

Deputy Chief Glen Deering oversees the program. Most of the students, he said, start out at 18 years old, and it’s their first time away from home. “You have to work with them, but they’re a lot of fun,” Deering said.

Students whose homes are near SMTC can live at home, the assumption goes. So Scarborough offers its firehouse rooms to students from northern Maine, and even Massachusetts. Some students may not be able to afford both tuition and lodging, Deering said, meaning the live-in arrangement could be the deciding factor in whether a student even attends SMTC.

Others participate for the experience and the career boost. Students never respond alone to a call, allowing them to learn from others. Some come with significant firefighting experience, while others have next to none. But all are at SMTC, and in Scarborough, to learn.

They sign a contract, which includes a curfew and a requirement that they keep their grades up. In exchange for their work, they get a room and free cable TV and Internet access, which are already installed in the station houses anyway.

It is a quiet life. With a 10:30 p.m. curfew and a requirement to be out of bed by 7:30 a.m. on work days and 8 a.m. on school vacations and days off, the students don’t have a lot of time to participate in traditional college life.

But they sign up for it and say it’s not really a problem.

Josh Young, a 19-year-old from Bethel, has been a firefighter since he was 16. A son of a firefighter, he grew up around the fire service.

“It’s a good experience,” Young said. “We get to find out what it’s going to be like for the rest of our lives.” Living around a station house is a skill that must be learned, in addition to how to handle fire or medical emergencies.

In his time in the fire station at Black Point, Young has met a lot of Scarborough’s part-time or per-diem firefighters and paramedics. Many of them are full-time members of other departments in the area, working second jobs to make a bit more money.

“It’s a foot in the door,” Young said.

The students also spend a lot of time with each other. In some cases, they are in the same classes and can work on homework or group projects together.

They have a monthly student meeting at a firehouse, at which they cook supper and talk about how things are going.

On days off, the student firefighters often end up stopping by the other fire stations to visit their friends and relax.

“Every station has its benefits,” said Jon Rioux, a student living at Dunstan’s fire station. Black Point has single rooms, while the other stations require students to share double rooms. The configuration and layout of the stations differ, as do the type of calls. Some stations handle boat calls, while others deal more with vehicle extrication or calls to larger buildings.

“It gives you full-time experience,” Rioux said, which is a leg up in the competitive job market. Plus, he said, “you get to do all the chores.”

Once out of the program, students have job opportunities. The live-in program has a known reputation, and combined with SMTC’s associate’s degree in fire science technology, looking for a job gets easier.

“It looks really good on a resume,” Young said.

One recent hire in Scarborough is a graduate of the program. Andy Clark, now a paramedic based at Dunstan, entered the student live-in program in 1996. He lived in town fire stations for four years, while he studied fire science and became a paramedic.

Clark recommends it to others. “Sitting in a dorm, you’re not going to get any experience,” he said “Live in a fire station and get experience. You can’t beat that.”