Students Man and Operate Academy Fire Department
Photo by Peter Whelpton
“Morton House is on fire,” was the cry that tumbled scores of students from their dormitory beds on a chill autumn night in 1972. Within two or three minutes, some of the students, manning an outmoded attack pumper and a tank truck were extinguishing the fire. These were the students of Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H. Proctor is a private secondary school and the student fire fighters are teenagers.
The fire in the Morton House dormitory basement was undetected until it had gained a strong foothold. Hank Strickland, the 19-year-old chief of the Proctor Academy Fire department for 1975-1976, recalls, “It was going pretty good. Flames were coming through the floorboards on the first floor.” Hank added that the school fire company was on the scene in two minutes and he believes, “any later and we would have lost it.”
Proctor Academy lies in a valley between Mount Kearsarge and Ragged Mountain. A seldom-used Boston and Maine rail line and lightly traveled U.S. Route 4 bisect the town and school. In the manner of many New England towns, Andover is predominantly white clapboard, frame dwellings. The little community is surrounded and isolated on all sides by forested hills.
The school was founded in 1848, but the student fire department did not begin until 1949 when the graduating class presented Proctor with a 1919 Concord fire engine built in Concord, N.H. That first truck was succeeded by a 1925 Seagrave pumper and a 1951 Chevrolet forest fire truck. The second-hand Seagrave required constant maintenance and frequently broke down, giving rise to a standing joke in the 1960s that when a fire call came in, the Seagrave was sent to fight the fire and the Chevrolet was sent to tow the Seagrave home.
The old Seagrave engine finally quit altogether on the way to a brush fire in 1971, so in the autumn of that year, Proctor purchased a 1951 Seagrave pumper from the Medford, Mass., Fire Department—just one year before the fire in Morton House. The dormitory fire led the school administration to reassess the value of the fire company to the school. The budget was increased and the students were encouraged to take more intensive training. Eight of the fire department members attended the weekend fire fighting workshop sponsored by the New Hampshire Fire Chiefs Association in Fitzwilliam in September of 1975.
New chief each year
The academy fire fighters for the 1975-1976 school year number about two dozen including one girl, from among the 175 boys and 35 girls at the school. Three faculty members—Roger Emerson, Tom Bullen and George Emeny—serve as advisers and as a board of fire commissioners. These three men oversee training and maintenance, and they join with the graduating fire chief to appoint a new chief for the next academic year.
—photo by Peter Whelpton.
Photos by Tom Bullen and Pete Whelptan
Roger Emerson and George Emeny are presently restoring a 1931 American LaFrance pumper that will bring the fire department up to a strength of five vehicles. The fleet currently includes the hero of the Morton House fire, the 1951 Seagrave, a 1500-gallon Dodge tank truck (actually owned by the New Hampshire Civil Defense Agency), the 1925 Seagrave with a completely rebuilt engine, and a small van equipped as a rescue vehicle.
Dorms linked with CB radio
The school fire department is housed in a four-bay garage that was formerly a carriage house behind a mansion acquired by the school in 1964. Six members of the fire company, including Chief Strickland and faculty adviser Tom Bullen live in the adjacent former chauffeur’s cottage now named the Carriage House Dormitory. The house has a communications center where someone is always on duty monitoring the Andover Fire Department radio as well as the radio traffic of the dozen other members of the Twin Rivers Mutual Aid Fire Group. The communications center also ties into each dormitory on campus through citizens band radios.
Hank Strickland is a broad-shouldered young man of medium height who intersperses his conversation with “sir” or “ma’am.” Hank says with pride that the fire company and its trucks can be at any Proctor dormitory within two minutes.
The department drills every weekend, weather permitting. The weekly drills cover “catching” a hydrant, entering buildings in full gear and scaling a three-story tower to simulate rescues from an upper story. The practice tower next to the Carriage House complex is also used by several of the fire departments in the Twin Rivers Mutual Aid Group. The Proctor fire fighters visit, in turn, at other Twin River fire departments for practice fires and similar training events. During the 1974-75 school year, Proctor’s fire company hosted a propane-fueled practice fire.
The over-18-year-old student fire fighters are volunteers on the Andover Fire Department. Proctor Fire Department members bring their 1951 Seagrave to the town firehouse to cover in case of a second call while they fill out the crews of the responding town trucks.
Three of the students and two of the faculty advisers hold emergency medical technician certificates to man the Proctor rescue van. The EMT members are augmented by other students who are graduates of the Red Cross first aid course at the school. An emergency first aid team covers all home athletic events.
Roger Emerson is a rugged native of Andover who moved away as a young man seeking work. After spending a third of his life in such places as the Midwest, he returned to Andover in his late 30s and joined the Proctor faculty. In addition to being a faculty adviser to the student fire company, he is a captain in the Andover Fire Department.
Supported by alumni
There are no statistics of how many alumni of the Proctor Academy Fire Department went on to become career fire fighters, but the number is believed to be considerable. The 1973-74 fire chief is now a full-time member of the Orono, Maine, Fire Department. The 1974-75 chief enrolled after Proctor in a vocational-technical school fire fighting program while serving with the Laconia, N.H. Fire Department.
Hank Strickland was largely unaware of the Proctor Fire Company when he came to the school from South Carolina as a freshman in 1972, but he expects to become a career fire fighter. Eighteen-year-old Steve Theriault, a senior from Connecticut, hopes to attend the New York State school for paramedics following graduation. Bill Croston, 17, is another fire company member looking forward to a career fighting fires, and he currently serves as a volunteer during vacations in his hometown of Winchester, Mass.
The fire department alumni provide much of the lifeblood of the current operation. There are some cash contributions, but a big part of the support comes as usable, second-hand equipment. Cash donations to the department during 1974-75 amounted to $1500, which equaled the budget provided by the school.