2013-09-13 / Front Page

Live-in program benefits all involved

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


The Scarborough Fire Department brought in a class of nine live-in fire science students in the fall of 2013, the 25th year of Southern Maine Community College’s live-in program, which began in 1988 with two students in Scarborough. The program now includes 71 students in 17 fire stations. The live-in students are, from left: Tucker Holt of Amesbury, Mass.; Cody Rickevicius of Waterbury, Conn.; Mitch Vildaus of Storrs, Conn.; Andrew Clark of Westbrook, Conn.; Pat Emanuelson of Hudson, N.H.; Tucker Reece, who graduated from the fire science program to the paramedicine program, of Marblehead, Mass.; Ryan Cunningham of Barrington, N.H.; Megan Hayes of Newington, Conn.; and Tyler Huppe of Hebron, Conn. (Jack Flagler photo) The Scarborough Fire Department brought in a class of nine live-in fire science students in the fall of 2013, the 25th year of Southern Maine Community College’s live-in program, which began in 1988 with two students in Scarborough. The program now includes 71 students in 17 fire stations. The live-in students are, from left: Tucker Holt of Amesbury, Mass.; Cody Rickevicius of Waterbury, Conn.; Mitch Vildaus of Storrs, Conn.; Andrew Clark of Westbrook, Conn.; Pat Emanuelson of Hudson, N.H.; Tucker Reece, who graduated from the fire science program to the paramedicine program, of Marblehead, Mass.; Ryan Cunningham of Barrington, N.H.; Megan Hayes of Newington, Conn.; and Tyler Huppe of Hebron, Conn. (Jack Flagler photo) SCARBOROUGH – When former Scarborough Fire Department captain Donald Jackson and then-chief Robert Carson established the town’s fire science live-in program in 1988, they envisioned Southern Maine Community College students who could not afford to live in dorms learning on the job while providing valuable coverage to local fire departments.

In that first year, the Scarborough Fire Department did not receive much coverage assistance. According to Steve Willis, chairman of the fire science department at SMCC , two students lived in the Pleasant Hill Station in 1988 on the corner of Highland Avenue and Pleasant Hill Road.

This fall, the fire science live-in program marked its 25th anniversary, and coverage is no longer a concern. The program began as a collaboration between the school and three fire departments – Scarborough, South Portland and Gorham. Today, it has expanded to 71 students in 17 departments from Waterboro to Topsham.

The Scarborough Fire Department has 13 students spread across five of the town’s six fire stations, all except the Oak Hill station on Route 1. Nine of those 13 students joined the live-in program this fall.

Willis said the program is mutually beneficial because it strengthens local fire department’s on-call roster, allowing them to reduce their average response times because students can leave right from the station. When a call comes in for emergency medical services or a structure fire, the difference of a minute or two of response time could “mean the difference between life and death,” Willis said.

“It’s a tremendous benefit to the communities at a relatively modest cost,” Willis said.

The successful live-in applicants for the fire science program are selected each spring in a process Deering described as similar to the NFL draft. After reviewing the candidates’ written applications, the chiefs meet each candidate and perform in-person interviews before the departments select their live-in students.

The live-in students said the interview experience is nerve-wracking, knowing more than a dozen chiefs will evaluate their skills and draft accordingly. However Megan Hayes, a student from Newington, Conn., said the pressure does not end with the draft because the stakes are much higher as a member of the fire department than they would be as a student taking only written tests.

“It’s like a two-year interview,” Hayes said of the program.

After the draft, the students begin a three-week “firefighter academy” program, taking classes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week in August, leading into the start of SMCC’s regular classes in September.

At the end of the academy, students become paid on-call members of the fire department, while continuing to take courses at SMCC’s South Portland campus. As the year progresses, they learn to operate fire pumps and drive emergency vehicles.

“It’s a good way to start our careers. Instead of going to class and trying to remember what you can a week later, we’re going to calls and getting actual experience. We’re not junior firefighters or explorers. We’re members of the fire department,” said Tucker Reece of Marblehead, Mass.

Reece, like many live-in students, is continuing his studies in SMCC’s paramedicine program, and like all of Scarborough’s new group of students, he is from outside of Maine. Six of the nine new students are from Connecticut, while two come from New Hampshire and one from Massachusetts.

“At SMCC they’ve done a really good job promoting the program and it’s well noted. Over the years they’ve improved the program, and in the last five or six years it’s really taken off,” said Scarborough Deputy Fire Chief Glen Deering, who has overseen the department’s students since 1991.

While students come to the program from around New England and around the country, Willis said many live-in students choose to stay in Maine after they complete their studies.

“That’s another real benefit of the program. This year, we have students from all over Maine and seven other states. Some of those students graduate and go back to their home states, but a lot of them stay and find a home here,’ Willis said.

The Scarborough Fire Department staff includes four graduates of the live-in program: a supervisor, two emergency medical service workers and dispatcher Tom Selby, who assists Deering with the program.

Time management is a hurdle all college students face in their first year as they adjust to living on their own, but for the live-in students the challenge is magnified. Deering said the firefighters and SMCC professors encourage students to prioritize family first, then studies, then responding to calls.

Ryan Cunningham, a new student from Barrington, N.H., said it is sometimes difficult to keep those priorities in order.

“If you’re doing work and you hear the tone go off, it’s frustrating if you know you can’t respond. You’re just sitting in the bay waving,” Cunningham said.

Live-in student Andrew Clark from Westfield, Conn. said professors encourage the students to complete their school work on campus, to avoid the difficult moment Cunningham described of watching firefighters and EMS personnel respond to a call and being unable to ride along.

Although course work is prioritized – live-in students must maintain a C average each semester–students say the hands-on aspect of the program is the best learning experience because in an emergency, there is no time to think back to lessons learned in books.

Pat Emanuelson, a student from Hudson, N.H, said the information learned in class is important to retain, but in a stressful emergency situation “muscle memory” takes over.

“You can read all the books you want, but you have to be able to respond in that moment,” Emanuelson said.

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