NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Aetna’s live-in program for UD students helps cut response times
Liam Stabner had just returned home to his Skid Row apartment after taking an exam last Friday morning when the call came in for a house fire on Wilbur Street.
Stabner ran across the street to the firehouse, geared up and in minutes was on a fire engine heading toward the blaze.
“To go from taking an exam to running into a burning building, it’s a big transition,” the University of Delaware sophomore said.
That said, it’s a common occurrence for Stabner and the other members of Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder Company’s new live-in program.
Four firefighters — two UD students and two recent graduates — are part of the program, which launched in July.
The live-in members stay rent-free in an apartment provided by Aetna on
Academy Street’s Skid Row, located across the street from the firehouse. In exchange, they trade off night shifts, ensuring that Aetna has firefighters on duty to respond to calls between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. While not obligated to, they often respond to calls during the day as well, as Stabner did last Friday.
“Having members in your station gets the truck on the street,” Chief Drew Bowerson said. “Staffed engines put fires out.”
While Aetna is primarily a volunteer company, it does have two paid firefighters on duty each night. They, along with the two live-in members on duty, make up a full engine crew of four and can leave immediately instead of waiting for more firefighters to wake up and drive into the station from home, thus reducing response times.
Bowerson noted that a fire doubles in size every 45 to 60 seconds.
“By having a crew in quarters, we can prevent that from happening,” he said.
Aetna spokesman John H. Farrell IV added that having a crew on duty reduces the number of times other members have to wake up to leave home and respond to calls, especially minor incidents.
“The overnight staffed engine crew from the livein program can handle the automatic fire alarms, the car fires, the calls for wires down and the trash fires,” Farrall said. “A member is more likely to get up and respond to a structure fire, bringing additional apparatus to back up the staffed engine.”
Aetna’s calls for service continue to increase, topping 11,000 last year. At the same time, it’s harder to recruit volunteers as people lead increasingly busy lives.
“So we dipped into our local resource — the University of Delaware,” Bowerson said.
While the live-in program is new, UD students being involved at Aetna is not. Approximately 10 to 12 students are active volunteers each year. College students are energetic and often have more time than an older volunteer with a full-time job and a family.
Andrew Happer, a UD graduate who is part of the live-in program and also serves as an engine captain, said it’s common to see students hanging around the station doing homework.
“When a call comes in, that’s their break from studying,” Happer said.
The live-in program solidifies that commitment, because the participants agree to respond to all calls that happen during their night shifts.
Bowerson said Aetna spent the last year working out the details of the program, which is popular in other areas, especially Prince George’s County, Md. Though the fire department incurs an expense to pay rent and utilities for the apartment, it’s cheaper than paying full-time firefighters, he said, adding he hopes to eventually expand the program to eight members.
Happer, who joined Aetna six years ago, said he enjoys living across the street from the firehouse.
“I like helping the best I can,” he said. “By living here, I’m able to provide the best service I can.”
He also likes the camaraderie that comes from living and working with the same firefighters.
“We build trust so that when you go out on a call, you know they have your back,” Happer said.
Dominic Santos, another live-in member, concurred.
“Whatever helps us be better for the community is better for us,” said Santos, who is in his third year volunteering with Aetna. “We’re together all the time here. You get to build a better bond.”
He said a typical shift varies drastically.
“It all depends,” he said. “I’ve had nights where we slept all night, and I’ve had nights where we ran all night.”
Stabner, who started volunteering with the Lewes Fire Department at age 14 and joined Aetna last year when he was a freshman, acknowledged his college experience is different than that of many of his friends.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle you have to commit to,” he said. “Sometimes it can get a little rough if I have a 9 a.m. class. But, you can always come back and take a nap.”
The trick is finding the right balance between school work, responding to calls and making time to hang out with friends.
“It’s definitely possible,” he said.
While Stabner, Santos and Happer all said their primary motivation is to serve their community, having a free place to live is certainly a benefit as well. Stabner estimated he’s saving $8,000 this year by not living in the dorms or an off-campus apartment. The location isn’t bad, either.
“It’s about as close to campus as you can get,” he noted.
Aetna is taking applications for next year’s live-in program from now until Oct. 31. Those interested should contact Brian Corbett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aetna Chief Drew Bowerson (left) poses with three of the fire department’s live-in firefighters, Andrew Happer, Liam Stabner and Dominic Santos.
Liam Stabner, a member of Aetna’s live-in program, helps remove debris from a Wilbur Street home damaged by fire last week.