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Falmouth fire station live-in students learn, give back by doing

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Falmouth fire station live-in students learn, give back by doing

FALMOUTH — Many students are going off to college this fall.

They'll live tightly packed into dorms and may be kept awake at night by loud music.

But there's another group of college students out there. They live just a few to a large building and may at any time of night be awakened by loud sirens.

They are the 60-plus students in southern Maine who live in fire stations in the 14 communities participating in Southern Maine Community College's live-in associate's degree program for fire science or paramedicine. Eleven others have been placed in eastern Maine through Eastern Maine Community College.

Though the live-in program has been in existence since 1988, this is the first year that Falmouth has participated, Steve Willis, SMCC area student live-in coordinator, said.

"The program is a collaboration – a partnership – among the college, students and communities," he said.

And it benefits all involved. In exchange for a free room, hands-on experience and a support network of professionals, students give their "home" station staffing hours and emergency assistance. In turn, the set-up makes them better students by converting their classroom learning into practical experience and gives them the edge over other job applicants once they've graduated, Willis said.

Although the agreement only requires the students give their communities 12 hours plus emergency coverage each week, "there are kids that if they could, would put 40 hours a week into it," Willis said.

The interning experience makes the students more attractive to prospective employers. For example, of the dozen new emergency services personnel hired by the Auburn Fire Department in the last 12 months, nine of those have been graduates of SMCC's live-in program, Willis said.

"It prepares them very well to compete for jobs," he said. "Also, they're part of a network in the state; if the fire chief in Falmouth is high on one of his students, that will certainly help that student get a job. It's a good entrance into the career."

But Willis acknowledges the live-in component is not for everyone. If the student is looking for a campus experience, it will not be the right fit.

"It takes a significant level of maturity to qualify and be successful; the consequences of mistakes are very high," he said. "It is a bridge to a career and you have to be ready for it."

During the summer, students were required to read about 1,000 pages of materials and pass 22 chapter tests.

Since the students arrived nearly four weeks ago, they've been working toward their 80 hours of compliance and basic training as required by the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards, Willis said. The first two weeks were spent on structure fires and last week, the group worked on the Emergency Vehicles Operation Course and pump training. In addition, they will spend many hours going out with experienced operators to practice driving the emergency vehicles. The training takes place in Yarmouth, Scarborough, Windham and other area locations.

The school has a selection process that resembles a football draft, Falmouth Assistant Fire Chief Doug Patey said. Applicants to the program sit through a rigorous interview with four members of the participating communities at the beginning of the summer. During that time, their interviews are played live via video camera to about 30 additional community members who are also evaluating the candidates. After rating them, communities enter into the "draft" process, based on seniority in the program.

Falmouth ended up with two women and two men who live in the Winn Road station: Jen Dingee of Vista, N.Y., Dani Leclerc of Livermore Falls and Zack Tooker of Westfield, Mass., all of whom have already arrived and started their training, and Tom St. Pierre, who joined them at the start of school this week.

Tooker said his high school principal advised him to apply to the program.

"I looked into it and fell in love with this place," he said.

For Dingee, the decision was made years ago.

"I used to vacation here as a kid," she said. "When I was 9 years old, I said I wanted to go to college in Maine."

As soon as she discovered SMCC's fire science program, she said she knew it was the right choice.

Leclerc, too, said she knew the major and the program was what she wanted.

"Not every day does an 18-year-old get to live in a fire station," she said.

Other participating communities include Cumberland and Yarmouth.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.