The Life of a College Volunteer Firefighter
Written by Bianca Boykin
Photographed by Kristina Naderi
Ryan Wimmer remembers the crackling flames of the first fire he ever fought — it was in his freshman year of college. It was a trailer fire in McKinleyville and he could not see anything through the smoke. “It’s hard battling something that you can’t see when all you really want to do is know what you’re up against,” he said.
Wimmer is a volunteer firefighter with the Arcata fire department. During his first year at Humboldt State, students would sometimes ask him to help since they knew he was training to be a firefighter. “So-and-so bumped their head, or so-and-so passed out drunk,” he said.
Wimmer recalls it was tough being in a fire academy while he lived in the HSU dorms. “Sometimes we would get a fire, or I’d have a long weekend of training at the academy. My turnout gear would be soaking wet from the rain, or water from a drill we had,” Wimmer said. “I would usually just hang them in my room and let them dry overnight, so my room probably smelled.”
Now in his third year studying forestry at HSU, Wimmer, 20, is also trained as an emergency medical technician.
One afternoon during a shift at the downtown Arcata station, Wimmer stops in mid-conversation with another firefighter as they hear three beeps from a handheld radio. It is followed by a woman’s voice: “Arcata medical … 44-year-old male, diabetic emergency.”
Wimmer rushes down the stairs of the station to meet fire Capt. Rick Gomes. They hop into an engine and sirens blare as they speed down the streets towards Westwood. The men snap on their latex gloves and listen for new information from dispatch. A few minutes later, an ambulance appears behind the fire truck, both now speeding towards the emergency. The two vehicles pull in front of a house where a man is lying unconscious on the ground. Paramedics administer dextrose solution to the man, and insert a needle into his vein. His eyes start to flutter and he comes to.
Wimmer recalls how quickly the patient responded to the paramedics. “For a diabetic emergency that has a real potential to kill somebody, it’s impressive for modern science to reverse that condition in such a short period of time,” Wimmer said. “One second this person was close to dying and the next, they’re awake and talking to you.”
Calls like these are routine for the Arcata Fire District, which operates three stations — Arcata, McKinleyville and Mad River. These fire stations are staffed by career and volunteer firefighters.
Gomes is a career firefighter at the Mad River station. He recalls when he was a volunteer like Wimmer. One time, he was at his parent’s house for Christmas, and his family had just sat down to dinner. “Then my pager goes off — structure fire — and my mom’s like, ‘can’t you just eat and then go?’ I said, ‘no I don’t think the fire’s gonna wait for me to eat.’”
Arcata Fire Chief John McFarland, who will be retiring in December, worked in Eureka for 32 years. Before that, he volunteered in Crescent City. “We depend immensely on the volunteer folk; we treat them exactly like every other firefighter,” he said. “They don’t look any different, they don’t act any different, they have all the same training.”
Being a student, Wimmer cannot deal with every emergency that comes his way. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and honestly sometimes I just gotta leave the pager at home,” Wimmer said. “Like, today is going to be a bad day to get a call; I’ve got two midterms, I got this class, and my professor hates it when I pull my phone out. So you have to have a good feel for what you can do and what you can’t do.”
Sometimes the fire department hosts community events in Arcata. At an open house during fire prevention week in October, firefighters gave kids a ride around the Arcata Plaza in an old 1920’s American LaFrance — one of the station’s antiques.
Later on, firefighters in turnout gear demonstrate what an auto extrication looks like. A dummy sits in the driver’s seat of an old Volvo as the firefighters cut into the car so that they can get him out. The driver’s side door is supposed to be stuck, so they break the windows of the car and use hydraulic cutting tools to enter. The demonstration ends with the crew peeling the roof off the car and Wimmer using a spreading tool, called the “jaws of life,” to get the door open. The dummy is hauled off on a stretcher. Spectators around the station applaud. “I love training on Volvos, ‘cause those things are rock solid,” Wimmer said.
His favorite part about being a firefighter is helping people, solving problems and using different tools. Still, he is humble about his job. “I don’t know it all, not by any means — but with what jobs that I’m expected to do, I think I can perform well.” After he graduates from HSU, he wants to go to College of the Redwoods to study and train to be a paramedic.
From the few years of experience Wimmer has with being a firefighter, he still sometimes finds himself in awe of fire. “One thing that’s really incredible is when the fire origin starts, say in a corner of a room, and it builds in size — from there, it will usually hit a ceiling and begin licking flames across the room. If we’re advancing through a hallway, sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of fire rolling over your head. You never want fire to get behind you and cut off your method of egress,” Wimmer said. “It’s actually a really beautiful thing though, to see fire rolling over your head.”
He now understands fire in a more intimate way. Before he got into the fire service, his idea of a burning building was loud and chaotic. “When it really comes down to it and the radio stops squawking, engines idle and sirens wind down — it’s actually pretty quiet inside. You can see little traces of flame dancing across the ceiling almost without noise,” Wimmer said. “It sounds kind of romanticized, but this is what my little amount of experience in this world has revealed to me.”