IFA live-in program keeps passion alive for student firefighters

Adam Young (junior, safety science), right, does homework while Thomas Williams and Michael Kreshalk fight for the TV remote at the Indiana Fire Association firehouse on Indian Springs Road. (Dave Gershgorn/ The Penn)

Ladder truck 106 screamed through Indiana University of Pennsylvania at 3 a.m. Monday, carrying four IUP students toward multiple burning buildings just off campus.

They exited the ladder truck, gathered by the door, and entered 504 S. Seventh St., looking for people inside the burning student-rental house.

“You’re doing a search, and you’re praying it’s nobody, but you’re praying even more that it’s not somebody you know,” said Thomas Williams (junior, safety science), one of four IUP students who volunteer to live-in at the Indiana Fire Association’s facility on Indian Springs Road.

The four students cleared the first floor, but to access the second story, they needed to use the exterior stairs.

The only problem was the stairs were possibly on fire.

“You can see the fire right beside you as you’re climbing up. And you got the ash falling down around you,” said Adam Young (junior, safety science).

This is just another day in the life of an Indiana Fire Association live-in student firefighter.

“It’s basically like being a career firefighter,” said Tyler McLaurin (senior, safety science). “It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to it.”

Williams, Young, McLaurin and Michael Kreshalk (sophomore, safety science) are all students who live and volunteer in the Indiana Fire Association firehouse. They do this for no pay, no school credit and only free housing in return.

The program, which started in 2006, gives students the opportunity to live in a real firehouse situation, according to 1st Assistant Fire Chief Paul Koons.

“What we’re trying to do is better our response time by giving something to college students, in this case IUP students, in return for their living here and doing chores, and responding to calls from 10 p.m. at night to 6 a.m.,” Koons said.

This is the first and only year McLaurin has been a part of the live-in program, although he is a senior at IUP.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” McLaurin said. “It’s a lot of fun; there’s a lot of brotherhood involved. We make a ton of calls; we do a lot of work.”

The four live-ins are tasked with maintaining the firehouse and its equipment, as well as fire training and being constantly available for fire calls, all on top of their duties as students.

Young said the time management is something he’s used to.

“I was still a firefighter in high school, so I’m used to still having to get my work done around firefighting,” he said.

Although he had experience volunteering in high school as well, Williams said firefighting and being a student is still a learning experience.

“It teaches you a lot,” Williams said. “You get to know a lot about yourself. It will help me out in the future.”

And with all four firefighters studying safety science, Kreshalk said it makes for a productive study environment.

“You have three other safety majors here who are almost done, so anything I need help with, they’re willing to,” he said.

But when lives are potentially on the line, the students are all business.

“When your feet hit the ground coming off the pole, it just snaps you completely into focus,” Young said.

On the way to the scene, communication and mental preparation are key, according to Williams.

“We’re painting a picture in our head before we get there,” Williams said, “so we’re running through the scenario of every possible aspect of what can go wrong and how you’re going to fix it before you even get there.”

To prepare themselves for real fire scenarios, the four live-ins train together on a weekly basis, teaching and coaching each other on techniques such as how to safely follow a hose, or line, out of a building, even if the line is obstructed.

This training not only keeps the firefighters sharp, but it allows them to learn about each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

“With us training out here, it’s the same four of us training,” Williams said. “So I know what tool is your favorite tool; I know what type of way they want to approach a fire.”

Young said he agrees with Williams that living and training together allows them to work more efficiently.

“We go on a call,” Young said, “and I know exactly who I’m going to be with, what their strengths are, who’s good at this and who’s good at that. So we can function a lot more seamlessly, just because we’re so used to working with each other.”

The bonds forged in the firehouse don’t only apply to firefighting. Whether it’s playing practical jokes, wrestling over the TV remote or helping each other with assignments for school, the live-ins are a cohesive unit in and out of their fire gear.

“It’s a fun time,” Kreshalk said, “a lot of hectic chaos. It’s basically just guys being guys, playing practical jokes on each other.”

Despite what may happen between the live-ins, the job requires the four firefighters to get along, due to the fact that they may need to respond to a call at any moment.

“There’re times we’ll get mad with each other, but no matter what, when the pager goes off, everything’s dropped,” Williams said. “We eat together, we do chores together, we go on fire calls together, train together; anything you could possibly do, we’re usually doing it together.”

Three of the four student firefighters have family members who serve their local communities in the fire department, but Williams joined for a different reason.

As a child, he lived down the street from a fire department and ambulance company and would see the emergency vehicles racing past his home.

“There were a couple of things that happened when I was younger that made me feel helpless,” Williams said. “With the fire department and ambulance always going on calls, I always thought they were coming to help me, and clearly, they weren’t. So I knew what the helplessness feeling was, and I wanted to be that person going to help that person out.”

Young, Kreshalk and McLaurin all have fathers who work or volunteer as firefighters.

“My dad is a firefighter,” Young said. “I’ve been hanging around a firehouse since I was 3 or 4 years old. So, it’s kind of been in my blood.”

But, Young said that family traditions of firefighting that is often seen isn’t always a good thing in the big picture.

“Very rarely do I see people anymore that are first-generation firefighters,” he said. “I think that might be part of the reason why the numbers of firefighters are going down.”

Although the program currently includes four students, the fire house has the capacity to hold six firefighters.

Firefighters applying to the program must have experience from their own departments back home, according to Koons.

“We’re not a stepping stone. We don’t want somebody coming to IUP, and we just give them a free place to live,” he said.

In terms of training, IFA requires that applicants at least have completed The Essentials of Fire Fighting – a course offered by the state – as per Pennsylvania state accreditation, and have been active in a home department.

After completing their studies at IUP, Williams, Young and Kreshalk all hope to pursue careers in firefighting.

“My plan is to get my degree and then start testing for paid departments and be a career firefighter,” Williams said. “Basically anywhere that is testing, I’ll be going over.”

Young said that in addition to a career in firefighting, he would still like to use his degree, possibly consulting in safety sciences.

“A lot of people find once you get involved with this, it’s really a fun thing to do,” he said. “It’ll definitely change your life for the better.”