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Ohio College Students Fill Volunteer F.D. Ranks

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Matt Hamsher and Josh DeWinter are squirming in class at Muskingum College.

Their phones have just beeped, a signal that the New Concord Fire Department is being called to an emergency.

Each sneaks a peek at his phone to read the message scrolling across the screen:

Car crash, I-70, exit 165 east. Injuries.

They re volunteer firefighters. They should respond, but they re also college students. So, per the fire chief, they know they should stay in class.

I hate sitting in class when there s a run, said DeWinter, a senior majoring in education. DeWinter, who s in his second year of firefighting, loves the rush of helping people, the way his adrenaline pumps when he s called and the respect he is given as he puts out fires or calms a heart-attack victim.

He s one of nine Muskingum students who volunteer for the New Concord department. Like some other fire departments in Ohio, it has recruited students for years.

They have so much energy, they bring up the rest of my people, said Chief Brent Gates, who heads New Concord s all-volunteer department of about 45 firefighters. They have a different perspective of life because they re not raising families yet and don t have some of the responsibilities the others have. They re a great resource.

Gates said students often can respond to daytime runs when older volunteers are at work; that s invaluable for a department like his. It protects 72 square miles and more than 9,000 people in six townships, plus 10 miles of I-70.

Activity fairs and word of mouth bring students in, many as soon as they arrive on campus. Some have volunteered at home, but most are novices.

Like all firefighters, they take 36 hours of basic training and, in most departments, 120 hours of emergency medical technician training. That first year is a tough one because they re taking college and firefighting classes at the same time, said Muskingum junior Zach Rudy.

After that, volunteers meet once a week for training, check equipment once a month and typically go on five to seven runs a week.

Students aren t shielded from the ugly side of the work, said Granville Fire Chief Jeff Hussey. His department usually has 10 to 12 students from Denison University.

It s pretty eye-opening for some of them, and generally they do a good job of handling it, he said. We try to make sure they re taken care of emotionally.

Rudy said the accidents he has seen in three years as a volunteer have been a reality check on drinking and driving.

It gives you a better respect for life, because you don t know what could happen to you at any time, the 20-year-old said.

DeWinter and Hamsher, both 21, have worked on fatal crashes and seen badly injured bodies.

It definitely matures you when you do something like this, DeWinter said.

Like many other student volunteers, both DeWinter and Hamsher, a junior political-science major, plan to become career firefighters after they graduate.

That happens a lot, said Bob Hooper, chief of the College Township Fire Department in Gambier. About a fourth of his 40 firefighters typically are Kenyon College students. In recent years, two became firefighters north of Columbus near Delaware after graduation, and two others are full-time paramedics.

Those who pursue other careers often use the skills they ve learned to volunteer for other departments or to work in fields such as medicine, Gates said.

Bob Otter s three years as a volunteer firefighter while he studied at Denison shaped the rest of his life. A Manhattan native, he grew so close to the Granville community through firefighting that he s raising his family there and continues as a volunteer firefighter.

Firefighting always was a passion of mine, and Denison afforded me the opportunity to act on it, said Otter, 33.

After graduating he worked part time as a Mifflin Township firefighter and then became a salesman for Dublin-based Boundtree Medical, which distributes emergency-medical-service equipment and pharmaceuticals.

We re like the little kids who never grew out of the firetruck stage, Otter said. I dedicate every ounce of my being to it.

kgray@dispatch.com

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