A firefighting fraternity

Students find brotherhood by volunteering at local fire department

The Spectrum

Young men in search of brotherhood often set their eyes upon UB's Greek Life. They pledge for a fraternity for a semester and then become brothers.

Some students find fraternity elsewhere.

Mike McGuire and Matt Wheeler found brotherhood at Ellicott Creek Volunteer Fire Company. The students balance school, jobs and volunteering, and they often encounter traumatic and devastating situations with local volunteers on calls. Through the experiences, McGuire, Wheeler and their fellow volunteers have become like brothers.

McGuire, a junior computer science major, believes joining the firefighter department has given him better friends, better experiences and better self-satisfactionthan a fraternity ever could have.

"I think in Greek Life and in school, the word 'fraternity' has been skewed a bit," McGuire said. "Fraternity means brotherhood - that's what it's supposed to imply; that's the original meaning of the word. And there's really no stronger brotherhood I've ever encountered than the fire service."

McGuire has been volunteering at the fire department, which is located onSouth Ellicott Creek Road in Amherst, for eight months. He'll be a probationary member until he completes the necessary requirements within a year of joining. McGuire believes the requirements - being on squad, responding to fire calls and taking a fire training class - are equal to what most fraternity members go through during the pledging process.

"It's a year-long pledge," McGuire said. "It's not, 'We're going to beat you up just so you can prove how badly you want to be in our frat.' No, for the fire department, it's answering the question: Are you going to dig down and do what it takes, learn the ropes and get your requirements down? That's what my pledging entails."

Matt Wheeler, a senior mechanical engineering major, has been volunteering at Ellicott Creek since he was 14. He, too, has found meaning in his friendships there.

"In the fire service, you might get teased a little bit when you first get in, but you could call any person from the fire department at two in the morning and say you need help and they'll be there for you," Wheeler said. "It gives you people you can always rely on. I've even borrowed vehicles from people - if I need a car for a day, the guys'll say, 'Here, take my truck.'"

The intensity of the firefighters' friendships reflects the intensity of the stresses they experience.

Firefighters often bear witness to tragic events, so the department at Ellicott Creek offers Critical Stress Incident Debriefings (CSID) for free. Heart attacks are the most common cause of death among firefighters, at 47.2 percent, and traumatic stress is the second most common, at 28.2 percent, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

"We do see people at their worst," McGuire said. "We go to a house fire and there's somebody who lost their home, or we go to an EMS call and someone's lost their husband, or father, or brother. It's difficult to see, but I can't think about it too much or I'm just going to torture myself. It's when we're needed the most that people are usually at their worst."

Wheeler recalls a house fire last year, during which members pulled three people from a burning fire - CSID came to debrief and to "make sure everyone was OK."

"It is stressful, but if you know you did everything you could for someone, then you can set your mind at ease with that," Wheeler said.

Firefighters aren't the only ones who deal with stress due to their work at the department - their friends and family also worry when their loved ones go on calls. Ali Grippo, a junior mathematics major, is dating McGuire and still has trouble dealing with the anxiety.

"There's really no way to deal with the nervousness," Grippo said. "I just need to trust that he knows what he is doing and that he'll come home safe. I always have him send me a quick text when the call is over so I know he's safe."

Although Grippo worries "all the time when he is gone" and hates not knowing what goes on during McGuire's calls, she's still proud of her boyfriend for making the decision to sign up and stick with it.

"When he told me he had made the decision to join, I couldn't have been more excited," Grippo said. "It was something he had been thinking about for a while and I was proud of him for finally committing to it."

Working in the fire service has been personally rewarding for both McGuire and Wheeler because it has given them some of the closest friends they've ever had. They will remember their experiences both on calls and in the firehouse forever.

Wheeler recalls carrying a little boy's aquarium full of lizards out of a burning house.

"The look on his face when he saw that we had gotten his pets out," Wheeler said. "That was pretty cool."

The Ellicott Creek Fire Company has brought these two students "true fraternity" through their service to the community. McGuire said the bonding that comes with saving lives, helping the sick and injured and putting out fires is incomparable.

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