Student volunteer firefighters fill a crucial need in the community and gain important life skills in the process.
ON AN UNSEASONABLY WARM APRIL EVENING, 28 firefighters, each clad in 40 pounds of gear, are gathered outside of Williamstown Elementary School. They practice carrying 160-pound ladders in formation, moving in circles and around corners. Then they take turns climbing ladders 35 feet into the air, hooking a leg around the top rungs so their hands are free to wield a tool. By the time they load up and head back to the station to debrief several hours later, it’s after dark.
Drills like these are a common occurrence at firehouses around the country, where the majority of firefighters are volunteers. What makes the Williamstown Fire Department different from many, however, is that more than a third of its force consists of Williams students—the highest percentage in nearly 50 years of the partnership—thanks in large part to Grant Gattuso ’23 and Will Titus ’23. Both joined the force their first year at Williams and, in March 2022, founded the Williams College Firefighters’ Association.
Neither had previous firefighting experience, but, like most students who have volunteered over the years, Gattuso, a biology major, and Titus, who is majoring in political economy, were interested in serving their communities. As is also the case for most of the student firefighters, the two say the experience has been life-changing.
Says Titus, who, one wintry night after a long day of classes, accepted a friend’s last-minute invitation to meet with Chief Craig Pedercini about volunteering: “That was probably the best decision I made in my four years here.”
STUDENTS AREN’T NEW TO the Williamstown Fire Department. Assistant Chief Michael Noyes, one of the longest-serving members, recalls one or two per year volunteering with the department since he joined in 1975.
In the past, students might learn about the opportunity by word of mouth, whether from a classmate or a college staff member. Noyes was a painter at the college for 30 years. Among other long-time firefighters, Assistant Chief Richard Daniels has served for 20 years on Williams’ custodial staff, more than half that time as a lead custodian. Deputy Chief Robert Briggs has worked at the college for almost 25 years, first in fire safety, security and telecommunications, and now as a network and systems administrator in the Office of Information Technology. Pedercini was a carpenter until 1998, and then a part-time preventive maintenance mechanic until 2002.
But none of the veteran firefighters recall a time when 10 students served on the force at once, as they do now.
“They’ve breathed new life into the department,” says Briggs, one of the co-advisors of the Williams College Firefighters’ Association. “They have so much ambition and mean so much to the fire department. It’s just amazing.”
As a registered student group, the association receives a nominal amount of funding and the ability to borrow college vehicles to attend training sessions at the state fire academy. They also began tabling alongside other student groups looking to recruit members at the Purple Key Fair.
After the 2021 fair, the department hired six students. The next year, 63 students signed up to receive information about volunteering. During meetings and interviews, the members of the department looked for students with backgrounds in community service, ropes work or rock climbing, “which tells us that they’re not afraid of heights,” Pedercini says. Three students ultimately joined.
Among them was Alexandra Riggs ’26, who signed on after connecting with Kendall Rice ’25 to discuss what it’s like being a woman in the department. Both describe the atmosphere at the station as “inclusive and supportive.”
“Grant once told us, ‘You want your absence rather than your presence to be remarked upon,’” Rice says of Gattuso. “The department and the community rely on us, and it’s up to us to commit to showing up when we’re needed.”
The students have also shown up for the department itself. Earlier this year, the town held a community vote on a plan to replace the 73-year-old fire station. Titus encouraged the student volunteers to change their voter registration to Massachusetts so they could participate. The vote passed, and construction is expected to begin in the fall.
At the standing-room-only town meeting the night of the vote, Titus addressed the crowd: “To be clear, when we are in class, we are college students,” he said. “When we get on the fire engines, we are Williamstown firefighters.”
THE INFLUX OF NEW STUDENTS is filling a gap that volunteer fire departments are experiencing all around the country. The number of volunteers reached a record low in 2020, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Among the factors for the decline are increased demands on firefighters’ time, more rigorous training requirements and more dangerous working conditions caused by modern household and automotive materials. Meanwhile, the number of calls nationwide has more than tripled in the past 35 years.
Just like their counterparts, students are expected to be prepared at a moment’s notice to answer a call at any time of day or night. While their studies and student activities come first—Gattuso and Titus have both been members of the track and field and cross-country teams, for example—students say professors and coaches are typically understanding. Likewise, the fire department understands when students have to take time off during exams or focus on their coursework.
Though they can’t drive fire trucks or enter burning structures without specialized training, students do nearly everything else expected of a firefighter. The department receives about 250 calls per year, and students are on the scene for most of them. Two years ago, Williams students assisted in putting out the largest brushfire Massachusetts had seen in decades.
They attend all-department drills and meetings each Monday, and then, every Tuesday, they meet up at the firehouse for their own sessions, alternating between training and cooking and eating meals together.
The day after the ladder training at the elementary school, the students held a search-and-rescue exercise. They donned their gear and crawled through barriers placed in the firehouse garage to practice rescuing a 200-pound CPR dummy. They also ran a drill that involved unfurling a heavy, unwieldy firehose and carrying it over obstacles as a team, eventually spraying it into the station driveway to practice control and aim. Throughout, they gave and listened for commands, learning how to communicate and look out for one another while also developing key firefighting skills.
One week students might learn how to handle hydraulic rescue tools like cutters, spreaders and rams used in automobile accidents or how to strategically break down walls and doors during fires. Another meeting might involve taking inventory of equipment on the trucks or cleaning gear. Each task is important and requires deep trust and dedicated teamwork.
“All that training, all that time together leads to a strong bond,” Pedercini says. “Once you’re a member of the fire department, you’re a part of it forever.”
That’s been the case for Erryn Leinbaugh ’99, who grew up in northern Idaho and served on the local forest service’s fire crew before coming to Williams. In addition to joining the Williamstown Fire Department, the English major worked 40 hours per week to support himself in college—including with Village Ambulance Service—and belonged to the Williams Outing Club and the cycling team.
After graduation, Leinbaugh worked full time as a firefighter in the Denver area, but he dislocated a shoulder halfway through his academy training. He shifted gears to attend the Brown University School of Medicine, continuing his work as a paramedic and EMT. Ten years ago, he returned to the region to work as an emergency medical physician with Berkshire Medical Center.
“As soon as the moving truck unloaded everything, I walked down to the fire station and applied again,” Leinbaugh says.
Pedercini says several other former students have gone on to become either volunteer or professional firefighters after Williams. Titus extended his training when the Williams campus went remote in spring 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, receiving his Firefighter I certification with his local fire department in New Jersey. As he weighs his future plans, which may include teaching English in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship, he expects to continue working as a firefighter.
“I put a lot into it,” Titus says, “and I’ve gotten a lot out of it.”