Weekly family dinner for the East Syracuse Fire Department bunk-ins. Pictured from left: Hayden Turk, Robbie Evans, Kyle Jones, Keegan Dunn, Kyle Kiehm, Noah Medina, Max Maxella and Mike Kareglis. (photo by April Rink)
By April Rink
They are students by day, firemen by night. House fires, drug overdoses and vehicles in trees are just the beginning for eight young men at the East Syracuse Fire Department. Between classes and homework, they’re either responding to any call that comes their way or keeping the station in check.
The group, all from various corners of New York, came to East Syracuse Fire Department as part of a bunk-in program to fulfill their dreams of being career firemen. To save money and gain experience, many students in the fire protection technology program at Onondaga Community College join one of the fire department’s bunk-in program in the county. These programs allow students to live free of room and board at a local station for two years when enrolled in OCC’s program. The stipulation is they become an active member of the station, meaning they must tend to the station and respond to calls.
“I would take this over a fraternity any day of the week,” said Keegan Dunn, of Monroe, N.Y. “I know it’s not a typical college lifestyle, which I feel like that would just be boring. Waking up, going to classes, going out drinking. Like OK, yeah, whatever.”
Out of the 56 fire departments in Onondaga County, almost a dozen stations offer bunk-in programs. To date, about 50 students have completed ESFD’s bunk-in program.
This year’s ESFD bunk-ins are the first group to participate since the program received a first-place achievement award from the New York Conference of Mayors in May 2017. Acting Chief Chris Shields said ESFD was chosen because it houses one of the state’s first bunk-in programs of its size.
Fire departments really rely on bunk-in students for quick response times. Nathan Baker, a former ESFD bunk-in who currently works as station caretaker and EMT at East Area Volunteer Emergency Services, said the program helps to lower taxes because, without volunteers, the department would have to make the switch to a paid station.
The ESFD district covers nonmedical emergencies within a 10-square-mile radius, including 28 hotels, railroads, highways and residential neighborhoods. The district’s two stations respond to 1,000 to 1,200 calls annually.
“We’ve had nights where we get five calls and we’re just dead in the morning,” Dunn said.
In order to be an ESFD bunk-in participant, students must be a level one firefighter at a volunteer station outside of Onondaga County. Bunk-ins are separated between the two ESFD stations, with four current students who are also EMT-certified evenly split between stations.
Interested students typically apply to OCC first and then look for stations. ESFD invites candidates and their parents to a meeting with the bunk-in committee and tours of both stations. The student’s application is then reviewed and background checks are made, said Shields.
“There’s a lot of hours going into training. A lot of growing up happens,” Baker said.
Many of this year’s ESFD bunk-ins are born with firefighting in their blood. Dunn, 21, is a fifth-generation fireman. Noah Medina, of Johnson City, N.Y., is a third-generation fireman and is in his first semester at OCC.
There isn’t much play time for the bunk-ins. Signing up requires them to be awake and in uniform by 9 a.m. every weekday, logging in 40 hours dedicated to the department on top of their full-time college course load.
With the little extra time they have, some are looking for or already have part-time jobs. Kyle Jones, of Adams Center, N.Y., is a member of the National Guard for which he works a weekend a month. For Jones, he became a fireman because of the excitement.
“It’s kind of an adrenaline rush. I guess it’s something you always want to do as a little kid but you never really think about doing it,” Jones said.
Like those in similar careers, the bunk-ins have calls that they remember more so than others. For Robbie Evans, of Clayville, N.Y., it’s the calls that involve children. For Medina, it’s the call of a mother who found her son dead from a drug overdose. For Dunn, it’s the unusual sight of a car lodged in a tree top.
Currently, ESFD is looking to potentially expand its reach within the bunk-in program. The future may allow for students from Syracuse University, LeMoyne College and Columbia College, majoring in anything, the opportunity to join the station’s bunk-in program.
“Overall, [firefighters] always preach brotherhood and how everyone’s a family, and it is,” Evans said. “But out here, we grew together. These guys, I’d do anything for. They’re my best friends now. I’ve been here for three months.”
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.