GAMBIER, Ohio — Early one morning, flames broke out inside a downtown building in Mount Vernon. City fire crews were first on the scene. The students, four of them from nearby Kenyon College, arrived shortly afterward.
Their task was to find the fire on the first floor.
Think you can handle this? the chief asked them.
Yep, they said. We got this, chief. With city firefighters tackling the blaze in the basement, they tromped ahead in search of flames.
The smoke was so dense that their hands disappeared in front of them. They stumbled through the darkness, toward the biggest fire any of them likely would see during their time volunteering with the College Township Fire Department. One of them grabbed the thermal-imaging camera and spotted it, there in the corner.
Yeah, man, that's the fire. We found it.
It wasn't until the next day that it hit them.
Someone should have brought a hose.
"We were like, 'OK, there's the fire,' and we left," said Charlie Miller, a senior psychology major from Andover, Mass.
They aren't exactly eager to tell such a forehead-slapping story, looking at their hands and stifling a laugh when they recall that morning two years ago. But these things happen when you're new, young and just learning how to be a firefighter.
Miller and about a dozen other Kenyon students make up nearly half of the volunteer EMTs and firefighters at the College Township department. They all have stories of the lessons they've picked up along the way.
"If you don't learn something on the run, you're missing something," College Township Fire Chief Bill Smith tells them.
College students across the country volunteer at local fire departments, usually in small towns. Some want to pad resumes or start careers. Others just think it sounds interesting: In Licking County, Denison University junior Ashley Holland joined the Granville Township Fire Department volunteers on a whim and now finds herself hanging out at the station even when nothing's going on.
"It's kind of a fun thing," she said.
But few departments rely on students the way College Township does, especially as traditional volunteer participation dwindles there. Each year -- and this has been going on for decades -- the department sends a big shiny truck to an activities fair just after school starts, and for the following two months it puts potential student recruits through grueling training to see whether they can hack it in high-pressure, physical situations.
Most can't. Thirteen students said they wanted to join the group this year; only four made it. Their next step is getting their EMT and firefighting certifications. College Township pays for that schooling and gives some of the students small stipends as well.
"These guys train hard," Smith said. "I've never seen any department train the way these kids do."
While the average non-student volunteer at College Township goes on fewer than a third of the runs from the department, the students are there nearly 40 percent of the time. One student, Will Lindberg, goes on 70 percent of the calls, more than even the chief.
"If there's a fire right before class, it's hard to walk away from that and go to class," said Lindberg, 21, a senior philosophy major from Oakland, Calif., who plans to pursue a career in firefighting.
The volunteers aren't supposed to skip class to take a call, but it happens. Miller was 40 minutes late to a seminar last month because he had just helped rescue a man trapped in a truck cab beneath a load of lumber. The truck had slid off the road and down a steep embankment. Miller showed up to class muddy.
"It can be fairly hard to relate to some of the other students," Lindberg said.
That might be part of the reason the Kenyon firefighters spend so much time together. They eat together, study together, play video games at the station together. Many of them live together.
Smith said they're experiencing something their classmates couldn't understand. Even they struggle with it sometimes. Lindberg once went on a routine run to assist an elderly man and arrived in time to hear the man's last ragged breaths. Hardy Evans' first call was on an attempted suicide. The woman had overdosed on antidepressants and died two days later.
"I really didn't know how to react," said Evans, 19, a sophomore from Montclair, N.J.
This education is like nothing that's going on in the classrooms at Kenyon, Smith said. It's powerful. It's tough. It's so rewarding that most students stick with it through college, even giving up their summers to volunteer.
"The experience is something that you can never pay for," Smith said.