It was just before 8 a.m. when the alarms at the City of West Haven Fire Department, Allingtown went off.
A major structure fire was underway. Sara Potter, just 18 years old, a first-year fire science major, got up and quickly donned her fire gear. Ryan Kondracki’s adrenaline kicked in as he and Potter responded to the scene. A senior majoring in electrical engineering, Kondracki has a passion for electronics, but he’s equally dedicated to helping people and has been an EMT since high school.
“I was drawn to the fire side of emergency response after coming here to UNH,” he said. “In the future, we will probably see a lot of combination fire and EMS departments, which is why I felt that if I wanted to keep volunteering as an EMT, I would need to learn to fight fire as well.”
They are two UNH students in a unique four-year-old internship program, living and working with career and volunteer firefighters in the firehouse.
Potter is the first female student to live in the firehouse, and Kondracki is one of a few UNH student volunteers who are not fire science majors. They study in the bunkhouse and are starting to become part of the very fabric of the place, a kind of brotherhood/sisterhood that Potter said pushes her through all of challenges the field can pose.
“Whether they are UNH students or people down at the firehouse, when it’s time for business, I know that every single one of them has my back and wouldn’t let anything harm me,” she said. “It’s a giant family.”
Similar to the 24 student interns who came before them – most now working as career firefighters throughout New England – they are professional, adept and willing to jump in wherever needed, said Peter Massaro, chief of the City of West Haven Fire Department, Allingtown. The students take a 14-week training course to become state certified so they can use attack hoses to help the career firefighters and volunteers fight fires, Massaro said.
While Potter and Kondracki are the only two UNH students living in the firehouse this semester, 25 other UNH students volunteer regularly and play an integral role, Massaro said.
On any given day, the student volunteers go out on fire calls, assist at the scene of accidents, wash down fire trucks and help with paperwork. “I always tell them school comes first, but whenever they don’t have school they’re down here all the time, helping out wherever they can,” he said.
Last year, Allingtown responded to 2,261 alarms. A restful slumber isn’t part of the gig. But that’s just fine with Potter and Kondracki.
At the sound of the alarm for that structure fire, Potter and Kondracki were ready. “We just passed UNH and could see a tower of smoke climbing into the sky, and we got there in time to help one of the mutual aid trucks set up the secondary hydrant,” Kondracki said. “We were at the fire for three hours helping out while the career departments fought the fire.”
Wayne Sandford, a lecturer in the fire science department and advisor to the fire science Living Learning Community, said so much is gained from the program on both sides.
“The students learn what the job is like both in and out of the fire station,” he said. “They get to practice what they have been taught. Students have added value to the Allingtown fire department through increased fire coverage and public education programs. Many of us as professors are very envious of the students’ experience at UNH. We all wish we had the same chance when we were younger and just entering the fire service.”
Firefighting is practically part of Potter’s DNA, and she said she is grateful for such hands-on learning. “My family loves that I’m a firefighter/EMT because pretty much all of my family does it,” she said. “I volunteer because I love helping people in my community and protecting them to the best of my ability."
This story, by Writer/Editor Jackie Hennessey, originally appeared in UNH Today on October 14, 2013.