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Still on guard

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After COVID closure, volunteer student firefighters stay to serve community

 

UD students (from left) Olivia Alexander, Mark Doyle and Michael Hemphill participate in the live-in program at Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company in Newark, volunteering as firefighters in exchange for free housing. When most of their peers left campus to ride out COVID-19 at home, these first responders stayed behind to serve their community.

With college campuses closed during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, you might expect to find undergraduates mourning the loss of academic and social routine the same way a lot of Americans are coping at home in a cozy pair of sweatpants with comfort food and the latest TV binge.

But for one group of University of Delaware students this is a time for heroism over Hulu.

Approximately 30 Blue Hens work or volunteer with the Aetna Hook, Hose and Ladder Company, one of the busiest fire companies in the state first responders, who serve the Newark area, answered more than 12,000 calls last year. Six of these students take part in the live-in program, meaning they each volunteer about 36 hours per week as firefighters with Aetnas Academy Street station in return for free housing. Some also put in additional, paid hours as emergency medical technicians, or EMTs. In March, when most of their peers left campus to ride out the quarantine period with loved ones, these undergraduates chose to stay behind and serve their community.

They arent here for their resume, said Brian Corbett, the live-in committee co-chair and a volunteer firefighter of 25 years. He is also the father of two Blue Hens not involved in the program. These students genuinely want to help. They have great drive and great enthusiasm for life and learning. And, by supplementing our staffing, they are critical to the success of what we do.

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Olivia Alexander, a neuroscience student, has been a volunteer firefighter since age 16.

The job has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Certain emergencies, like those necessitating CPR, now call for full-body protection in the form of disposable coveralls. And the ambulance disinfection process no longer happens on a case-by-case basis, but after every transport. It is also more time-consuming what used to be a manual, 10-minute wipe-down now requires half an hour and a virus-killing spray gun filled with cleaning solution. But the biggest change for student volunteers might be the added layer of uncertainty each time an emergency vehicle pulls out of the station even for routine calls.

We are definitely stepping into the unknown, said Olivia Alexander, an Aetna member and UD senior majoring in neuroscience. Our dispatchers do their best to get us all the information possible, but you just never know what youre walking into.

Alexander, who counts among her inspirations an uncle who served the New York City Fire Department during 9-11, relayed a recent interaction with a local homeowner. His problem turned out to be a carbon monoxide leak nothing too harrowing for emergency personnel during normal times but the mans constant coughing was understandably unsettling. (He tested negative for COVID-19.)

The longer this goes on, Alexander added, the harder it is to be away from family. I do miss them, she said. And being from New York I also miss the pizza.

But serving with Aetna during a pandemic has its upsides, too, members will tell you.

Take Michael Hemphill, an Honors sophomore mechanical engineering major who, prior to the outbreak, had been looking forward to a hands-on class project. He and his peers were set to use a high-tech robotic arm, a six-axis computer-numerical-control router, to manufacture a plate they designed to aid in the repair of a fractured human bone. When classes were moved online due to COVID-19, the task was put on hold. But, Hemphill explained, volunteering has tempered the sting of disappointment: Helping someone out just makes you feel better.

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Michael Hemphill, a sophomore at UD, explained that he and fellow students who volunteer as firefighters have been staying away from loved ones during the COVID-19 crisis, just in case they pick up the virus during a shift.

The Newark native, a firefighter and registered EMT, said hes seen an uptick in medical calls since the start of the pandemic not just from those experiencing coronavirus symptoms, but from those experiencing anxiety attacks due to the ongoing stress of collective trauma.

Easing the panic of strangers encouraging them to focus on their breath and recall basic facts to focus the mind has made it easier to keep his own cool during a trying period.

It definitely helps, he said. If youre not calm, theres no way theyre going to be, so you have no choice. You cant freak out.

In their years of service, Aetna volunteers have confronted intense situations. Alexander worked a seven-alarm fire in 2018 at the landmark Willey Farms marketplace in Townsend, Delaware, which drew emergency workers from four states. Hemphill said hes responded to fatal car accidents and more CPR calls than he can count.

And Marc Doyle, a fifth-year student studying organizational and community leadership, described the adrenaline rush of being inside a maintenance facility while it burned, not being able to see his own hand in front of his face There werent any windows, he said. So there was nowhere for the smoke to go. But ask the student volunteers for their most memorable experiences, and they will point to smaller, daily interactions with the community interactions that have taken on new meaning since the onset of COVID-19.

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I want to be there for the community, said Marc Doyle, fifth-year student at UD and volunteer firefighter.

Whether its helping a cat out of a tree or untangling an American flag, every call is helping someone in some way, Doyle said. Weve had people who are lonely, and all they want is an emergency responder to come by and help with their chair or put a pillow under their neck. These arent life-or-death situations, and we try not to make a big deal of it because this type of thing can be a drain on emergency resources we try to determine a better, long-term solution for these people. But its also rewarding when you can do something simple that makes a big difference in someones day.

The efforts have not gone unnoticed. The students, who describe their fellow volunteers as a second family, said theyve seen an increase in expressions of gratitude from community members since the start of the pandemic. In some cases, adults and young children have stepped outside to wave as fire trucks and ambulances drive by, heartened by the reminder that, even when things are tough, there are people stepping up to help.

I feel like were a symbol of hope in the community, Alexander said.

And, yes, she added, this more than makes up for a lack of TV time and takeout even New York pizza.

Article by Diane Stopyra; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

Published May 27, 2020

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News Story Supporting Images and Text
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When the UD campus closed due to COVID restrictions, some students who volunteer as first responders with the fire company stayed in Newark to help.
5/28/2020
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Still on guard