By Henri Gendreau
As a volunteer with the College Township Fire Department, Sara Thomas-Martinez ’15 responded as usual to the call when her pager buzzed.
But the call went far from smoothly.
An individual had gone into cardiac arrest in front of a family member. “I remember particularly how distraught this family member was, and rightfully so, as it was very likely that their loved one would not live through the event,” Thomas-Martinez, now co-president and Kenyon liaison of the student cadre of the Department, said in an email.
Student volunteers rushed the patient to Knox Community Hospital. Minutes later, Thomas-Martinez found herself back in Gambier, wrapped up in the mundane motions of classes, homework and schedules.
“You get a different perspective on life when you see death ﾗ it sounds very dramatic, but I think it’s true,” she said. “It does really force you to kind of grow up a little faster.”
For the eight current student volunteers and six new recruits, serving their community has become a part-time job, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As a pre-med student, being able to say I worked [my] first cardiac arrest at age 18 ﾗ it’s incredible,” Thomas-Martinez said. “There’s nowhere else in the country that you get this kind of experience.”
“For the last three years, if we didn’t have students,” Chief of the Department Bill Smith said, “we wouldn’t have survived ﾗ and that’s a fact.”
But with fire departments across the country becoming more and more centralized, the road ahead for the local, mostly all-volunteer department remains murky.
A deal gone awry
Last year, the College Township Board of Trustees, which oversees the fire department, formed a citizens committee to explore a new course of action. Talks steered toward a partnership with the Mount Vernon Fire Department (MVFD) as the most viable option.
But then, on Aug. 9, MVFD Chief Christopher Menapace, a champion behind the efforts to merge the two departments, announced his resignation in order to become assistant chief in Whitehall, a suburb of Columbus.
“Better money, more opportunity,” Trustee Chair Doug McLarnan speculated in an interview last month. McLarnan called Menapace’s departure “very disappointing. He was the kind of guy who could have got this done.
“Too bad they didn’t sit down and pay him a bit more and he would have stayed,” he added. Menapace declined to be interviewed for this article.
Captain Chad Christopher took over as interim chief in September. He described the stalled negotiations as “pretty much Chief Menapace’s and the administration of the city’s doings.”
Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis said in an email that Christopher would likely be named chief. “In my opinion, there will be a continued effort to merge the two departments,” Mavis said, “because volunteerism, even though the student body has been very helpful, will continue to decline.”
But Smith said he had reservations about the negotiations, because students, who take “90 to 100 percent of our runs,” have plenty of experience.
“I hate the loaded question of more experienced people, because I think we have a great staff of College students that take a number of runs and do very well,” he said.
And with negotiations at a standstill, the future of the department appears more uncertain. “Mount Vernon doesn’t seem to be a viable option at this point,” McLarnan said on Nov. 13 at the Trustees’ monthly meeting.
The student impact
While student volunteers said they are not heavily involved in the bureaucracy of the Department, the negotiations over the summer were tense because of their potential impact on something so central to their college experience.
“From what I heard of the talks, the role of volunteers was minimized a lot on the department,” Hardy Evans ’15, who is training coordinator and co-president with Thomas-Martinez, said.
“On a professional level, it would be very nice to have an experienced Mount Vernon paramedic with us on every single run ﾅ and maybe it would be better for the department in the long run,” Evans said, but he noted, “There’s a huge difference between textbook and street” when it comes to gaining hands-on volunteer experience.
Director of Campus Safety Bob Hooper, who served with the fire department for 22 years, said he hoped any solution to the Department’s woes wouldn’t preclude student involvement.
McLarnan and others involved in the talks have repeatedly stressed that the student volunteer component would remain a vital part of any departmental restructuring. How vital, however, remains to be seen.
Charting a new course
With the Mount Vernon negotiations stalled, College Township has now brought in community development experts from The Ohio State University to see how community members would like to see the Department function.
At a Nov. 4 meeting, one community member said he was “distressed” that negotiations broke down. Gambier Mayor Kirk Emmert replied that Menapace’s departure wasn’t the only factor to doom the talks. Besides the fact that it would be another 16 months before any sort of partnership could take place, trustees from Monroe Township, which the Department also serves, remained resistant.
“The biggest obstacle was Monroe’s failure to want to do this, and they have been a major obstacle to it; they continue to be,” Emmert said. “Before the chief left, they opted out of the whole agreement.”
While the trustees await a report from the OSU experts, Smith said the Department is now in the process of hiring part-time members to see how well they will be integrated in the Department.
“I think the way it’s going to probably play out in the next few years in this community is that you’ll see more consolidation of fire departments,” McLarnan said.
Moving forward, “there are a lot of hurdles here,” he said, “and you’ve got to be able to jump every one of the hurdles ﾗ not kick one over ﾗ because if you kick one over, you’re done.”
With McLarnan estimating that the Trustees will know more about what course of action they will take by the beginning of next year, student volunteers remain ready to serve.
Whether the Department moves more toward part-time paid staff, a renewed partnership with Mount Vernon or even a countywide emergency medical service (which Mavis described as a “definite advantage”), Smith said any solution should use the skills of student volunteers.
“The students give so much to this community,” Smith said. “They need to be appreciated.”
But sometimes, this can be a challenge. “I think it’s difficult for us at times to relate to [other] Kenyon students,” Thomas-Martinez said.
“You’ll get done with a really bad run where someone’s wife, husband, child, will die, and you come back on campus and you have a class in 10 minutes, and people are complaining about their essays and how much homework they have,” she said. “It really does put in perspective how it’s not so bad. We have a really nice life here at Kenyon.”
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