College Fire Fighters Transfer Themselves And Their Department
When the trustees of Belknap College in Center Harbor, N.H., voted to close the school, the college’s death threatened one of the seven studentrun fire departments in the United States. But when the members transferred to a new school, they took their department along to bigger and better things.
On a cloudy September day, this writer dropped in on the department, housed in a converted barn on the school’s main campus, to get his kids a last ride on the Belknap fire truck. I asked Chief Bill Gery, a senior meteorology major from Villas, N.J., what the department planned on doing when the school folded at the end of 1973.
“A lot of work went into building this department,” Gery said, “and we don’t want to see it all wasted. There’s been talk about Belknap’s meteorology department being absorbed by another school, but if it isn’t, we still want to stick together.
Besides Gery, the department includes five sophomores: Assistant Chief Bob Schlacter of Long Valley, N.J.; Captain Curt Osgood, Springfield, Mass.; William Bowne, Stockholm, N.J.; Cindy Palmer (sole girl on the force) and Patrick Michael, Mt. Kisco, N.Y. All except Michael, in environmental sciences, are meteorology majors. All know standard first aid and some have passed the advanced courses. While at Belknap, the crew trained regularly at the mutual aid association’s center.
The Belknap Fire Department’s nucleus was a pair of open-cab pumpers. One, a 1951 Mack (500-gallon tank, 500 gpm) was donated by Mack Trucks after the North Amityville, N.Y., Fire Department turned it in. The second, a 1941 Ward LaFrance (300-gallon tank, 500 gpm) came from New Jersey after a wartime detour serving the Navy in the South Pacific.
“Both trucks cost us a dollar each,” Gery said. “The Ward was ordered and paid for by a town, but then war broke out and the Navy took it over. After the war, the civilian firemen asked for it back. Then they sold it to the Colt’s Neck, N.J., Fire Department for $100. They kept it as a parade piece, and then we got it.”
Gery pointed around the firehouse with its equipment and such comforts of home as a TV set. “This is all the Belknap Fire Department, Incorporated,” he said. “Not school property. So if the school goes bankrupt, they can’t touch our stuff. It goes with us, not someone wanting a toy or yard ornament.”
In a small town where many local citizens looked askance at some of the students whom they considered longhaired “hippies,” the Belknap Fire Department’s green-shirted members enjoyed excellent relations with their neighbors.
Manned only during the academic year, the station was open to other local firemen to borrow equipment during vacation should the need arise.
Incorporated in 1966 the Belknap department was the oldest student organization on campus. It not only served college property, but was part of a nine-town mutual aid network extending over a 22-mile radius. In the last full year of operation at Belknap, 1972-1973, it answered 23 alarms. The high point occurred in November 1972, when a Belknap dormitory in Center Harbor village burned to the ground. The trucks reached the fire from their station on the academic campus—4 miles from town—at the same time the local town department, two blocks away, did. This was attributed to the Belknap department always having a man at the station, whereas the Center Harbor volunteers had to come from home.
The Belknap department shared credit with the town fire fighters for keeping the fire from spreading to another wooden dorm 50 feet away.
“After the Harper House fire, the students took us a little more seriously,” Gery said. “They saw we did more than just have fun riding on fire trucks.”
In the same year as the big fire, the department also rescued two people from nearby Lake Winnipesaukee, and got three more to safety from a burning house, according to Gery. The department also served as the school’s security patrol.
“During the winter, we’ve pulled a lot of cars out of the ditch,” Gery said. “Lately, we’ve also found people stranded when they’ve run out of gas. We give them a gallon to get to a gas station.”
Members of the department believe that their outfit may be one of the least subsidized in the country. In 1972, it received $600 from the school’s student association, and had $1300 in additional expenses. It ended the year with a deficit of $7.49.
The fire fighters raised the needed $1292.51 by promoting a basketball game and by selling candy at local sports events. “We put in something from our own pockets, too,” Gery said.
Most of the equipment came from gifts and local departments. “We bought a few items like a variable stream nozzle, but we’re really grateful to mutual aid. If a company replaced stuff, it gave us the material that was still good,” Gery added. “That radio gear you see is the only thing not actually attached to the building that’s not B.C.F.D. property.” Some of the building originated with the fire fighters, too, such as the concrete floor and wood paneling.
The fire department’s quarters was formerly an old wagon storage area in a dairy barn. One man was always there, but most of the members used it as a between-class hangout. “It’s quiet and you can study, unless of course there’s a fire,” Gery said. (Something he didn’t mention was that the department earned an unusually large percentage of A and B grades.)
Transfers to another college
Soon after I talked with Gery, the department made one last effort for the school, with the Ward starting out on a drive to Washington, D.C., to publicize the college’s need for money to meet a $130,000 shortage for the semester. As Gery put it, “Maybe we can help the faculty get paid through the semester.” Unfortunately, the Ward broke down in Vernon, Conn.
At the same time the fire fighters were thinking of ways to save the department, the college’s Meteorology Department was seeking a school for transfer. After negotiating with several colleges in New England, the weather students and their three meteorology professors voted overwhelmingly to transfer to Lyndon State College, in Lyndonville, Vt., as of February 1974. This effectively kept both meteorology department and fire department intact. Pat Michael, the only member not a meteorologist, also transferred to Lyndon. “Maybe you could say comradeship,” he said on being asked what he liked about it. “We do a lot, and it’s something constructive, not just sitting around and talking how someone should do something.”
According to the department’s historical file, it was originally set up to fight forest fires in New Hampshire’s heavily wooded Lakes Region, starting with a now long-gone Dodge truck. After the Lakes Region Mutual Aid Association was formed, Belknap joined and became part of the association’s radio network.
The Belknap College Fire Department became the Lyndon State Fire Department with the transfer of its members to the new school. Lyndon State already had a rescue squad with ambulance, so the move was not only survival, but a merger and expansion of two going organizations. Plans are now afoot for new quarters and equipment, and the new community has the spirit of a department that proved itself in seven years of operation.
“We think this is too good to let go down the drain if Belknap folds,” several B.C.P.D. fire fighters told me in so many words. “We’re going to keep it intact, regardless.” And they did!