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Student takes time from class to fight fires

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE RISING senior A.J. Rossbach, shown at a firefighter training school in Washington called Camp Blaze, volunteers with the Middlebury Fire Department and juggles classes with fire calls.

MIDDLEBURY — A.J. Rossbach, a Middlebury College student from Seattle, is breaking boundaries locally and nationwide as a volunteer at the Middlebury Fire Department.

MFD is made up of 35 committed community members. Included in that cluster are five students a year who make up the college’s student volunteer portion of the group.

These students are on call 24/7 for the entire academic year, working alongside the 30 other volunteers at the stations in town.

Rossbach, a rising senior at Middlebury College, has been a member of MFD since 2021, but has been a part of the firefighting world for much longer than that. She started her training as a fire-protector four years ago in her home across the country in Seattle at a program called Camp Blaze, a fire camp for young women.

“I first got involved in firefighting with a fire service program geared toward young women. It takes place during the summer and takes participants from no fire experience to actual live fire,” Rossbach told the Independent in a phone interview last month. “I did that exactly four years ago, and now I’m actually volunteering for that same program right now, in Washington.”

Camp Blaze is an independent, non-profit program that is a week long and usually takes place at the end of July. The program is funded by major fire departments along the west coast. Rossbach said Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles fire departments in accordance with other departments in their metro areas are among the main large funders of the program.

“There are a ton of people from all these departments, including instructors and campers from a total of 10 different states here,” Rossbach said over the phone from Washington state. “And it’s all women — there are about 100 women volunteering, and there are 24 young girls who are learning about fire service.”

After participating in Camp Blaze, Rossbach joined the cadet program with her local fire department at the Seattle Fire Department. She was a part of their team until the fall of 2021, when she began working with the Middlebury Fire Department.

RECRUITMENT AND COMMITMENT

MFD and Middlebury College’s relationship began in 1988 when Dillon Dimick, a Middlebury freshman at the time, joined the department as a probationary firefighter. Since then, 34 other students have volunteered at the MFD, including Rossbach.

When asked about the process of joining the local fire department, Rossbach said that recruitment, for her, “wasn’t as hard as I thought,” because she’d gone through it twice before back home on the west coast.

“The Middlebury Fire Department is just such a good community,” she said. “The fire department has a really good relationship with the college, and I felt welcomed immediately. It’s a great group of people, they feel like my second family.”

But it’s not always comforting and bubbly. In addition to being on call at all times, the student volunteers are enrolled students at the college, which makes the tasks that come with being a firefighter no small feat.

“We have pagers, and the pagers are on us 24/7. If we get a call, and we can go, we go. If we can’t, we don’t.”

Rossbach spoke of a sort of mutual understanding between student volunteers and professors back at school who are removed from the fire department but are equally as considerate when it comes to academic leniency.

“There’s a lot of respect — if a page sounds like an important call, I might leave class. But if it’s an important class, if it’s something that I can’t miss, I won’t leave class. I think we understand each other,” she said. “My professors have been really understanding about tardiness in class: maybe I’ll have to leave 10 minutes early, or maybe I’ll be at a fire scene for eight hours. And then, if need be, they are more lenient with deadlines and exams.”

Rossbach was recruited in the fall of 2021 and served throughout this past school year. She and the four other student volunteers enrolled in the mandatory Firefighter One certification course, which teaches the necessary skills of being an interior firefighter, the type of firefighter who enters buildings. The course is rigorous, spanning about 200 hours, beginning in September and ending in May.

“We have to go through a 200-hour Firefighter One class, which doesn’t count towards any Middlebury credits. We’re taking that on top of everything else,” she said. “That’s every Thursday for the whole school year. That’s the main hard part, I’d say. The bi-monthly trainings and bi-weekly trainings feel quite manageable though.”

Rossbach has had an exceptional experience with the MFD and credits her relationships with the non-student firefighters for that.

“The officers and all of the firefighters are so friendly. They always ask how school is going and how homework is going. They know that you’re in Middlebury for school, and that that’s your priority. Their understanding makes it a lot easier too,” she said.

To learn more about Camp Blaze, visit their website, campblazefirecamp.org. To learn more about MFD’s student volunteering program with Middlebury College, head online to middleburyfiredept.org/apply-now.

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