Students make Swanzey firehouse their classroom

SWANZEY — Evan T. Casavant and Ryan R. Morgan aren’t your typical college students.

Sure, they go to classes and try to keep up with the seemingly never-ending stream of homework.

But, home to them isn’t a cramped dorm room on campus. It’s a Swanzey firehouse.

Since September, Casavant, 21, and Morgan, 22, have been resident student interns at the Swanzey Fire Department.
The Keene State College seniors live and work at one of the department’s three fire stations, spending their down time responding to emergency calls where they do everything from assess injuries at motor vehicle crashes to learn how firefighters investigate the cause of building fires.

As part of the recently expanded program, they each work 24 hours a week at the station and serve among the department’s roster of about 50 on-call firefighters.

Town and fire officials say the program — which began in 2008 as a daytime internship — has been a low-cost way to keep up with routine station and equipment maintenance and helped improve response times during the day when on-call firefighters are frequently working or unavailable.

For Casavant and Morgan, the internship has already provided valuable experience they hope will put them ahead when they enter the job market after graduation, they said in an interview at the fire station last week.

Getting a taste of a future career

Three days a week, Casavant and Morgan work eight-hour shifts at the two-story central fire station on Main Street.

Their tasks at the station vary from checking and cleaning fire equipment and vehicles to answering the department’s non-emergency phone line and cleaning the station bathrooms.

Casavant, who is from Derry, and Morgan, from Manchester, met two years ago as students at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia, where they earned associate’s degrees in fire science.

Both were planning to enroll this fall in Keene State’s occupational health and safety studies bachelor’s degree program when they heard about the Swanzey internship at a college job fair, Evans said.

The internship sounded ideal to them — both are licensed basic-level emergency medical technicians — and within months they were moving into a newly renovated living space in the Swanzey station and signing up for classes.

They share a small room attached to a common room and kitchen in the back of the second floor.

According to the four-page agreement with the town, they pay $800 rent per semester and have to keep up at least a 2.5 grade-point average.

Casavant and Morgan also rotate on-call weekend coverage and earn the call firefighter wage when they respond to emergency calls.

To earn course credit for the two-year internship, they are required to submit weekly logs and meet regularly with their internship coordinator at the college, said Larry H. McDonald, chairman of the Technology, Design and Safety Department at Keene State.

Students in the program are not required to take internships, but McDonald recommends them, and many students intern with private companies or at government agencies, he said.

“Doing an internship can be one of the most important things they can do here,” McDonald said. “Sometimes people are very directed in what they want to do and they know exactly what they want to do, and sometimes it’s like a test drive to see if this is really what they want.

“Also, for employers, some are actively hiring interns if they like their performance.”

Morgan knew he wanted to become a firefighter as a boy, when he tagged along with his mother, who served as an EMT with the Goffstown Fire Department, to watch the firefighters train.

“I just thought that it was a lifestyle I could see for myself,” he said. “Every day is different, you’re not working at a desk, you’re helping people.”

Casavant decided in high school that he wanted to become a firefighter “to help people, and to be a part of that brotherhood — to go on calls and be a part of something bigger than myself,” he said.

The first few months of the internship have strengthened their interest, both said.

There’s a lot about emergency response that can’t be learned in the classroom, Casavant said.

“Yeah, they’ll set up scenarios or a model you have to work through, but it’s not like in real-life where they’re trapped under a vehicle … or something,” Morgan added.

Since starting at the fire department, they’ve responded to numerous emergencies, including a serious motor vehicle crash during the first few weeks of their internship.

On an early morning in September, they were the first medical responders when an 18-year-old from Hinsdale crashed a truck into a utility pole and building after police allege he led an officer on a chase through Swanzey.

The teen was unconscious when they arrived and they got to work assessing his injuries, said Casavant, who was certified as an EMT in 2009.

According to court documents filed after the crash, the teen suffered serious internal injuries.

“It was like once we started working all the training kicked in,” Evans said. “You don’t really think about it until later.”

Support for new program in town

Swanzey Selectmen Chairman Bruce L. Tatro said he’s received positive feedback from firefighters and community members since the internship expanded to a resident program.

Tatro and the rest of the board approved the expansion of the program this summer, after discussing it with Swanzey Fire Chief Norman W. Skantze at several meetings.

At first, the board expressed concerns about the cost and liability, but Skantze’s experience running similar programs at departments in Bristol and Gilmanton convinced them it could be a benefit to the town, Tatro said Monday.

Skantze, the town’s first full-time fire chief, arrived in 2009. He’s the department’s only full-time employee.

Resident internship programs with students attending community colleges and vocational schools are common in Lakes Region fire departments, where Skantze previously worked as a chief, he said.

“I believed it could work here, but I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t already done it in Bristol and Gilmanton,” Skantze said. “The selectmen understandably had a lot of questions about how it would work and what advantages it would have for our department.”

The interns have brought much-needed manpower during the day for the department, which is the state’s largest on-call department and responds to about 1,000 calls per year — covering a town of about 7,300 people and an area about 40 square miles, Skantze said.“It’s two years of real-life experience for (the interns) and extra help for us here in the day,” Skantze said. “Our call firefighters do an amazing job, but it can be hard during the day when people are at work and aren’t as able to get time off or to get here as quickly as if they were at home.”

Casavant and Morgan, who will soon leave for a few weeks during the college’s winter break, plan to continue with the internship this spring and summer and both say they’re considering applying for the college’s master’s degree program in safety studies.
Eventually, they both hope to become full-time firefighters.

“It’s a lot of fun, getting to do this,” Morgan said. “The pager goes off and you get to go serve the public and help people.”

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