NY college students work as firefighters, EMTs in exchange for free firehouse lodging

The "bunk-in" program allows the students to stay in dorm-style housing at the fire department headquarters while actively volunteering


H. Rose Schneider
Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.

MARCY, N.Y. — Since August, the Maynard Fire Department has housed three firefighters at their headquarters in Marcy.

But unlike a paid fire department, the crew is made up of three college students who — in exchange for free housing — offer up their services as firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

Brendan Martin sits on his bed Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in his dorm room at the Maynard Firehouse in Marcy. He shares the dorm with two other SUNY Polytechnic Institute students; the students volunteer with the fire department in exchange for housing. (Photo/H. Rose Schneider, Observer-Dispatch)
Brendan Martin sits on his bed Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in his dorm room at the Maynard Firehouse in Marcy. He shares the dorm with two other SUNY Polytechnic Institute students; the students volunteer with the fire department in exchange for housing. (Photo/H. Rose Schneider, Observer-Dispatch)

The three students at State University of New York Polytechnic Institute — Cameron O'Neil, a 21-year-old junior from Port Crane; John Mollevik, a 21-year-old senior from Duanesburg; and Brendan Martin, a 20-year-old junior from Yaphank — all volunteered as firefighters in their home towns.

While at school, the students had been volunteering with the Maynard Fire Department while in school before they developed the "bunk-in" program. O'Neil said that they had heard about a similar program in the Syracuse area and decided to form their own at the Maynard firehouse.

In exchange for serving as volunteers, including some required on-call shifts, the three stay in one dormitory-style room at the firehouse, where they are able to use the department kitchen and other facilities. Like a college dorm, if they are not in class, they are likely here studying, sleeping or relaxing.

They may soon not be the only students there. Maynard Fire Chief Jared A. Pearl said another room is being built for a female student enrolled in the Herkimer County Community College paramedic program.

From left, Cameron O’Neil, John Mollevik and Brendan Martin stop in the dispatch room Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, at the Maynard Firehouse in Marcy. The SUNY Polytechnic Institute students volunteer with the fire department in exchange for housing. (Photo/H. Rose Schneider, Observer-Dispatch)
From left, Cameron O’Neil, John Mollevik and Brendan Martin stop in the dispatch room Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, at the Maynard Firehouse in Marcy. The SUNY Polytechnic Institute students volunteer with the fire department in exchange for housing. (Photo/H. Rose Schneider, Observer-Dispatch)

Department-wide issues

On Jan. 25, volunteer firefighters from the region, officials from the Firemen's Association of the State of New York and elected officials gathered at the Deerfield Fire Department to discuss legislative priorities for the year.

State Deputy Minority leader Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, who attended, said that a number of issues were discussed, the overarching one being recruitment and retention.

"We're trying to look at (these) as big issues," he said.

Griffo noted that addressing many of the other issues discussed, such as full coverage for treating cancers related to responses on Sept. 11 and a higher tax break for first responders, could help resolve this.

David Jacobowitz, a former FASNY president and Whitesboro firefighter, said a decreasing population upstate and jobs and other responsibilities that don't allow for volunteer time are some of the reasons fire departments are seeing decreasing membership. In some areas, he said, volunteer departments are incorporating paid members to supplement their staff.

Pearl said that, in addition to recruitment events, the bunk-in program is one way to help respond to the issue. The initiative has also led to a quicker response time, he said.

"So basically, I get a structure fire at 2:30 in the morning. When our driver shows up here, I already got a crew of three ready to go," Pearl said.

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©2020 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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