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Cornell Student and Alumni Firefighters at CHFD

Cornellians online magazine recently profiled CHFD and some of its members. Check it out here:

"Most students can drive a car by the time they graduate from college. Not many of them can drive a fire truck.

John Gregory ’23 is among the few. An agricultural sciences major, Gregory has been a volunteer firefighter throughout his time on the Hill (and for two years before that, as a high schooler in New York’s Westchester County). Now a junior, he has risen to the rank of lieutenant with the Cayuga Heights Fire Department (CHFD), the all-volunteer force that serves the tree-lined village adjacent to campus that’s home to many Cornell faculty and staff.

“It’s definitely exhilarating,” Gregory says of extinguishing fires and aiding in other kinds of emergencies. “It’s great to be able to make a positive difference in someone’s life. As firefighters, we like to respond to fires; that’s why we do it. But we also know that, on the other end, it’s probably the worst day of someone’s life. So we do the best we can to help them.”

For decades, Cornell undergrads and grad students (not to mention faculty and staff) have been serving as volunteer firefighters with local departments, Cayuga Heights included. Until about 15 years ago, when the Ithaca Fire Department went all-professional, some joined the city’s force as “bunkers”—volunteers who receive room and board in exchange for their service—in Collegetown’s former Fire Station Number 9.

Today, while some students volunteer with other departments in Tompkins County, Cayuga Heights hosts the largest and most active group of Cornellian firefighters. It has its own bunker program; Gregory is one of eight currently living in the spacious, modern firehouse, located near the village’s bustling Community Corners intersection.

“We’re really good friends, and we hang out a lot,” says fellow bunker Kirsten Scheller ’21, a master’s student in biomedical engineering who joined CHFD the spring of her freshman year and became an EMT last summer. “Also, we get to be on the first truck that goes to a lot of these calls, so we get a lot more experience and can be more involved.”

First responders

According to CHFD chief George Tamborelle, the department responds to some 600 calls annually, roughly 60% of them medical emergencies—a reason why some students aiming for med school, and seeking real-world experience, are attracted to volunteer. Other calls can involve car accidents, downed power lines, carbon monoxide alerts—and, of course, fires, though Tamborelle notes that major structure fires are relatively rare in the area.

Given the community’s academic bent, CHFD recruits twice a year, during fall and spring semesters. The job requires extensive training according to state and national guidelines, as members progress from probationary status to become “exterior” firefighters—meaning they’re qualified to fight fires from the outside only—and then “interior” ones; some go on to advance through the officer ranks.

Bunkers (from left) Titus Pierce, John Gregory, and Kirsten Scheller in the firehouse’s common room. (Photo by Ryan Young / Cornell University)

The student volunteers are a tight-knit group, and—with an eye toward recruitment, retention, and morale—Tamborelle has aimed to make the firehouse an attractive place for them to congregate, relax, and do homework, with amenities like a fitness center and robust wi-fi.

“When they don’t have class, they can come to the station—so there’s always somebody around who can go on calls,” says Tamborelle, who met his wife (pediatrician and former CHFD volunteer Lindsay Russell Tamborelle ’07) through serving in the department. “I don’t know if that dynamic would work for other fire departments, but it works for us. Why study in Mann Library when you can study at the fire station?”

An essential role

Currently, more than two dozen Cornell students serve with CHFD, comprising about 70% of the department’s volunteers. And while firefighting has long been a predominantly male profession, the Big Red contingent is decidedly egalitarian: just over half are female. They include master’s of engineering student Grace Ding ’21, a member of Navy ROTC and former varsity fencer who’s slated to complete her degree this month (December 2021) before beginning military service as a submariner.

“In the training you go through as an interior firefighter, you learn how to keep calm in really stressful situations; that has been useful,” says Ding, whose younger brother, Andrew Ding ’24, is also a CHFD volunteer. “And the Navy does a lot of training that’s similar to general firefighting, so I’ll definitely have an edge up on that and know more than my peers.”

Since fire departments in Tompkins County routinely provide mutual aid across municipal lines, CHFD often responds to incidents outside the village. Some of the more dramatic blazes it has helped battle in recent years include the fire that destroyed Lower Collegetown’s beloved Chapter House in 2015 and, more recently, one that consumed the Plantation Bar & Grill (a popular hangout on Route 366 in the Town of Ithaca) this past June.

In the training you go through as an interior firefighter, you learn how to keep calm in really stressful situations. Grace Ding ’21

For civil engineering major Titus Pierce ’23, the Plantation fire—which, like the Chapter House blaze, resulted in a total loss of the property but no deaths or major injuries—was his first. “There was a lot of adrenaline, but I also learned a lot,” recalls Pierce, who spent more than six hours at the scene, including working on a hose line.

What’s it like to control a fire hose going full blast? Gregory compares it to “a football player pushing against you with a constant force; it takes a lot of energy to hold it in place, much less move forward.”

Going pro

Among the Cornellian CHFD alumni are several who’ve gone on to careers as professional firefighters—including Andrew Magenheim ’05, a lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), currently serving with Ladder 26 in Manhattan.

Magenheim, like Gregory, began volunteering as a high schooler; he passed the FDNY’s written and physical tests in 2002 while still an engineering student, influenced in part by the awful toll of the 9/11 terror attacks, which occurred his freshman fall. After graduation, he spent two years in the engineering industry—waiting for admittance to the fire academy, based on his test scores and other factors—before joining the department in 2007.

“I had a really good engineering job that I enjoyed, but it was not something I could see doing for 40 years; I needed to be out interacting with people, having something different happen every day,” Magenheim observes. In the FDNY, he says, “you work with some of the greatest people in the world. The people who take this job are not just signing up for it; they all have a calling.”

CALS alum Jonathan Pique ’99 also served in the FDNY after volunteering in Cayuga Heights. In fact, he spent six months as CHFD chief before moving to New York City, where his now-wife, fellow CHFD volunteer Allison Nowak Pique ’02, was attending med school at Mt. Sinai.

Today, Pique is the training captain at the fire department in Berkeley, California, his wife’s hometown. “I went into college never even having considered firefighting as a career,” he recalls. “And then I joined [CHFD] and just fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe you could actually do that for a living.”

Magenheim and Pique both note that being an Ivy Leaguer in general (and a Cornellian in particular) isn’t as much of a rarity in the FDNY as one might imagine; Magenheim even recalls once serving on a fire truck whose crew also included a psychology major from Columbia and a chemical engineer from Penn.

“Coming from Cornell, I had a solid base in critical thinking and in learning how to learn—and I think those were key in making me successful,” says Pique, who was assigned to Engine 53 in Manhattan, serving for four and a half years before relocating to California. “There were 252 people in my academy class, and I came in number three academically, and that’s one of the reasons I ended up in a really good [fire] house.”

Another fellow CHFD alum—David Wolf, PhD ’11—made the rare leap from veteran volunteer to professional chief in a single step. Wolf began firefighting as a freshman at Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College and joined the Cayuga Heights department as a doctoral student in geology on the Hill. He eventually became an assistant chief at CHFD before graduating and moving to Houston, Texas, for a job as a research scientist with an international oil company.

Coming from Cornell, I had a solid base in critical thinking and in learning how to learn. Berkeley, CA, fire captain Jonathan Pique ’99

Houston’s fire department is a hybrid of professionals and volunteers, and Wolf rose to become an officer and run its training program. After six years in the oil industry, he decided to pursue firefighting full time; since 2016, he’s been chief in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Estes Park, Colorado. His experience in Cayuga Heights has served him well in his current job, overseeing a department of seven pros and 40 volunteers.

“I got to see a side of my community as a volunteer firefighter that I never would have as strictly a graduate student or an undergraduate,” Wolf observes. “Every college town jokes about the locals and the students. If you want to bridge that gap, volunteer for the fire department.”


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