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Students volunteer as first responders

BY EMILY BUSSE | DECEMBER 14, 2009 7:30 AM

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Chris Couch remembers the screaming. And the blood.

It was the weekend of July 4, and Couch, a UI medical student, was traveling with his younger sister and her friend along a highway in upper Michigan on the way to surprise their grandmother with a visit. In the last few miles of their trip, a truck slammed another car into the driver’s side of their SUV, causing it to flip six times before landing in a ditch.

Couch, at that moment “strangely calm,” kicked out the sunroof and crawled out. His sister’s arm was caught in the mangled car, and her friend was slumped over in the back seat. He thought she was dead. Reacting quickly, he rocked the vehicle enough to pull them both out.

As the three sat bleeding on the side of the road, Couch finally went into shock.

It was only a matter of moments until volunteer firefighters and paramedics arrived. Then, he knew they would be OK.

Two years later, Couch is a fifth-year volunteer firefighter at the Coralville Fire Department.

Remembering his relief when volunteers arrived that day helps him every time he is forced to choose between schoolwork and a call for help.

“I know what kind of helpless feeling it is to be lying in a ditch somewhere on the interstate,” he said. “It’s on my conscience if I turn my pager off. I’d rather get a lower score on an exam and help somebody.”

Couch, along with around 15 Kirkwood and UI students, dedicate anywhere from 24 to roughly 100 hours a month to their jobs as volunteer firefighters. They do it for job experience, and they do it to save lives.

“The thing about the volunteer aspect is that people do it for a reason,” Couch said. “It’s not a paycheck.”

UI junior Jonathan Smith is a new candidate this year going through firefighter-1 training — the first level of training hopefuls must complete. He said a reference from a well-regarded Fire Department such as Coralville’s will be a valuable addition to his résumé when he pursues a job as a paramedic after graduation.

Effective Dec. 1, the department has been officially ranked in the top bracket of fire departments in the state.

The Insurance Services Offices — which ranks fire departments nationwide on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst — ranks the Coralville Fire Department 3, up one place from its previous No. 4. There are no departments in the state with a score of 1 or 2.

After recently opening a second station and taking on approximately seven more volunteers this year, Coralville Fire Chief Dave Stannard said his new goal is to reach the level of 2.

The force consists of three paid members and 55 volunteers — though it’s not a simple process to join the department. After an interview with the chief and assistant chief, each candidate must pass a physical agility test, which includes hoisting 85-foot ladders and dragging heavy, writhing water hoses 100 feet while wearing 65 pounds of equipment.

After a physical, candidates are accepted and ready to begin six-month firefighter-1 training. They use a multimillion dollar training facility to practice putting out real fires and using emergency vehicles.

Of the nation’s nearly 1.15 million firefighters, 72 percent — around 828,000 — are volunteers, according to an October report from the National Fire Protection Association. Statewide, there are roughly 15,500 volunteer and career firefighters, according to Iowa Fireman’s Association.

The firsthand experience is the most valuable for career opportunities, said Stannard, who has been in the department since 1986 and served as its chief since 2002.

“It is more than an internship,” Stannard said. “We give them responsibilities, whereas an intern may go and just watch. Life experience is more than book learning.”

Hoping to be a medical officer for an emergency-response team after graduating, Couch said taking a call might be more beneficial than class.

This proved true on the morning of one of his first medical-school finals, when he decided to respond to a cardiac-arrest call just two hours before the test.

He said he probably didn’t perform as well as he could’ve on the test. “But I know what I did on that cardiac arrest, and I feel more prepared maybe than someone in the class.”

Sean DeGrande, also a third-year medical student, said being constantly aware of his surroundings is a skill he can apply to fighting fires and a future career as a physician.

“It’s an unorthodox kind of training for school,” he said.

But despite the hands-on experience, volunteer firefighting does cut down study time, he admitted.
Smith said he puts in roughly 10 hours a week at the fire station, in addition to classes for his communication-studies major and 16 hours a week as a Cambus driver.

“It’s a lot more stressful than just being a regular full-time student,” he said.

To “get them out of the dorms and the libraries for once,” Stannard said the department tries to make the station an enjoyable atmosphere.

At most times during the day, one can find the students upstairs in a large lounge. Equipped with a TV, video games, several tables, and recliner chairs, the room seems like a second home for some of the volunteers.

Couch said he can study there for hours.

“I’ll have all my books out, and there’ll be a car fire at Hy-Vee,” he said. “I’ll just shut my books and go. That’s my study break.”

Another potential downside to being a student volunteer is the high likelihood of having to deal with accidents involving people of similar age, given the proximity to the university.

One of the more memorable calls Couch responded to was an interstate accident in the area that killed numerous college-aged people. He said he remembers a difficult moment when one of the victims’ cell phones rang after the owner had died.

Despite the few added challenges of using student volunteers, Stannard said, the valuable resource of young members every year is worth it.

“Students bring a new enthusiasm, a new desire, attitude, and willingness,” he said.

But after four or five years, most students move away, resulting in a high turnover rate, training officer Jeremy Scott said.

Young volunteers from Coralville have been hired all over the country in states such as Texas, Florida, and Colorado, he said.

“To have our training noticed is great,” he said. “They think, ‘Wow, these guys have been trained well. We’ll look a little closer at those from Coralville.’ ”

Stannard said it’s hard to see the students go partly because of the strong bond among firefighters, an atmosphere that is an essential part of their experience at the department.

“It’s a closely knit, accepting group here,” he said. “We cover each others’ backs.”

The teaching passed down in a short amount of time to compensate for the turnover rate is one unique aspect of their camaraderie, Couch said.

“We need to learn our job a lot quicker than other volunteers and turn around and be able to teach it to someone coming in behind you,” he said. “It’s not just about doing the job, but being able to pass it on.”


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