Student fire brigade celebrates 40 year history
Kimball Union students get a lot out of their participation
By GLYNIS HART
PLAINFIELD – As the story goes, on a snowy night 41 years ago, Meriden firefighter Gardiner MacLeay responded to a fire alarm that had been pulled on campus. When MacLeay arrived at the alarm box, there was no one there — and no fire. However, there were footprints in the snow.
MacLeay followed the footprints to a dormitory, where a student confessed to pulling the alarm for entertainment purposes. This had happened before. What hadn’t happened before, however, was that the boy’s father asked that his son make amends by volunteering at the fire station.
Not only did the student enjoy working there, he asked if his friends could help out at the station, too. Although individual students had been fire department members in the past, there had never been a coordinated effort. Headmaster Tom Mikula thought it was a good idea for town-gown relations, and had some money he could put toward forming a student brigade. With the blessing of Meriden Fire Chief Doug Grearson, the Kimball Union Academy Brigade was born. Thad Seymour, a history teacher at the academy, became the brigade’s first faculty leader.
Writing for the school’s newsletter in 2012, Seymour remembered: “So that fall (1978) we went to work recruiting students, holding weekly training sessions with the other Meriden firefighters, and making plans for how we would respond when the next alarm happened. We were able to use the money to order bright yellow helmets for the 15 students, and the next year purchased the same number of fireproof jackets. And most importantly as far as I was concerned, we bought a magnetic “Kojak” light that I kept in my apartment, for use on the school van whenever an alarm went off. I also kept a special emergency band radio in my apartment that picked up the signal when an alarm was sounded. It woke me up in the middle of the night more than once, followed soon afterward by the loud siren mounted near the gym that woke up the whole town.”
Darrell Beaupre is the current faculty supervisor for KUA brigade, which turned 40 this year. Beaupre was also a member of the brigade when he was a KUA student, and his father, son, brother and nephew have also served. At one time three generations of Beaupres were in the fire department.
“I remember more structure fires than we’ve had recently,” Beaupre said. “It was interesting ... If you were 18 you could still ride on the back of the truck, which wasn’t the best practice.”
The club is competitive, he explained, since the squad is limited to “about 10” students and four times that number apply.
In order to get on the squad, students must write an essay explaining their reasons for joining and how they will benefit the fire department. Then they are interviewed by the faculty leaders and firefighters before being selected. The squad is on-call 24 hours a day, but they may turn off their monitors for exams, and if they’re at an away game “obviously they can’t make it,” said Beaupre.
“You might be at fire calls for many hours. If it’s overnight, I tell them, ‘You’re not excused from class or work the next day, just like I’m not.”
The squad trains with the Meriden Fire Department two Monday evenings a month. They go through the same training as the regular firefighters and learn how to perform firefighting and rescue operations and work with the firefighting equipment. Unless there’s an age restriction on an activity or equipment use, students who pass the firefighter certifications perform the same duties as adult firefighters.
Beaupre said that 16 and 17 year olds are trained how to do nozzlework, address hydrants, swap out air tanks, direct traffic at the scene, and saw up downed trees. Back at the station the brigade members are likely to wash the trucks and sweep the floors. The brigade also raises funds for the Meriden Fire Department for equipment and gear.
Since most join as juniors, they are with the brigade for a couple of years, but some join as sophomores. It is helpful if the volunteers have first aid or lifeguarding training, or if they have family members who have been firefighters. “They have to be in good academic standing,” said Beaupre, “and you have to know how to budget your time well.”
The habit of civic involvement sticks with brigade members. “I think they just want to give back,” said Beaupre. “They want to help out the city. We have kids who have gone on to the naval academy or a maritime academy, and this is one of the things [about Kimball Union] that they remember fondly.”
Given that most adults in Meriden commute out of the community to work, the brigade’s ability to respond immediately is invaluable. The Kimball Union Academy website notes: “Since Meriden is a commuting community, this group of eleven students play a vital role. While these students are greatly appreciated by the department and surrounding towns, often years later the students recall that their time on the Brigade was one of the most impactful and memorable of their time at KUA. Already the newly elected Brigade members have been involved in fire-drills throughout campus, as well as tool and apparatus training (including auto extraction techniques).”
Beaupre said at least one faculty member usually joins the department; when he was a student there were three or four volunteer firefighters on the staff. “Right now,” he said, “we’d like to have another member who lives on campus.”