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Fire department celebrates 135th anniversary

| Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Notre Dame Fire Department (NDFD) conducts a fire drill for each dorm twice a semester. Thursday afternoon, it was Mod Quad’s turn.

The firefighters on shift — Captain Michael Holdeman, firefighters Damien Cruz and Wayne Bishop and fire protection technician Dwight Niles — as well as Amy Geist from the Office of Human Resources and her yellow lab Dakota, piled into two fire trucks and drove around the corner to Pasquerilla East Hall for the day’s first drill.

IMG_20141204_133332Emily McConville | The Observer

Firefighter Damien Cruz and fire protection technician Dwight Niles drive to Pasquerilla East Hall for the first of five fire drills on Mod Quad on Dec. 4. Cruz said the fire trucks can pump 1,500 gallons of water per minute.

NDFD’s job was to walk in, trip the fire alarm, ensure everyone left the building in a timely manner and check for any fire code violations. They took the elevator, one man getting off at each floor. Cruz reached the fourth floor, where a few PE residents were studying in a lounge.

“Let me know when you guys are ready,” Bishop’s voice said from a walkie-talkie.

“We are ready on four,” Cruz replied.

One by one, the firefighters radioed in. One of them reminded Bishop to check the chapel.

A few seconds later, the fire alarm screeched through the building.

Cruz said the fire drills have only been this frequent for awhile, since the Clery Act required them, but NDFD has been doing this sort of thing — inspecting buildings, overseeing drills and responding to emergencies, fire and otherwise — since 1879. According to a University press release, it is the first and oldest campus fire department in the country. It celebrated its 135th anniversary Nov. 21.

When the fire alarm rang on Thursday, the PE residents in the fourth floor lounge jumped, then began to make their way downstairs and out of the building.

“Is this real?” one girl asked Cruz. He said he gets that a lot.

“We’re supposed to treat everything like it’s real,” Cruz said. “I’ll stand right here just for a few seconds. It clears out, the other wing, then I’ll give the all clear on this floor.”

Cruz began to walk down one hallway, nudging and occasionally knocking on doors. After only a few seconds, the floor appeared to be empty.

“We’re a little more lenient if there’s anybody in the shower or anyone with crutches or wheelchairs,” Cruz said. “In a real emergency, we ask them to wait in the stairwell, and we’ll come up and get them.”

“Third floor is clear,” Niles said from the walkie-talkie. Cruz turned around, went through the floor’s second section and gave his own all-clear.

On the way back, Cruz pointed at Christmas lights hung from the ceiling in a zigzag pattern. Not the best place for them, he said, but as long as they didn’t obstruct fire detectors or firefighters themselves, they could let it slide.

“Something that’s really going to catch our eye is if it’s wrapped around a sprinkler head or if it’s struck in a doorway that’s supposed to close,” Cruze said. “Usually little stuff like this, we’ll let it go.”

The firefighters and Geist congregated in the lobby as PE residents filed back in after only a couple minutes outside. Then they walked over to Knott Hall and repeated the procedure. (“I just wanted to take a nap!” one resident said on the way down).

After the second drill, the firefighters stuck around for a few minutes and chatted in lobby with students and hall staff. A few guys pet Dakota and tried to convince rector Patrick Kincaid to get a dog, while the firefighters talked about getting a dog themselves.

IMG_20141204_131526Emily McConville
This part of the job, 32-year veteran Bishop said, is his favorite.

“Interacting with students, faculty and staff,” he said.

NDFD was created after most of campus burned down in April 23, 1879. Cruz said until 1995, when it hired its first full-time firefighter, the station was staffed with priests, brothers and student volunteers.

Now, with 18 staff members, four of whom cover each 24-hour shifts, the department covers all buildings on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross campuses, and gives and receives help from nearby fire departments for bigger emergencies and football games, Cruz said.

Though the department was created because of a devastating blaze, Cruz said today, most of the station’s runs, or responses to calls, deal with something other than fire.

“We do a lot of medicals, a lot of investigations — we smell this, we smell that, we spilled this in this chemical lab, we spilled this in this science lab,” he said. “The majority of our runs — we don’t have too many fires on campus. Every building on campus is sprinkled … I wouldn’t say [fire is] impossible, but it’s not very likely.”

When the station gets a call — Cruz said it happens about three to five times a day, and ten times as often on football game days — it’s either a dispatch from Notre Dame Security Police or a fire alarm in a building, which runs through an analog system that alerts the firefighters through a series of bells.

“Every building on campus and at Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross has a number assigned to it, and the number of times it rings signifies where we go,” Cruz said. “For example, the number of the firehouse is 333, so it rings three times, two second break, ring three times, two second break, ring three times. So we count the bells, and we know where we’re going.”

NDFD has three fire trucks at its disposal, all of which hold 500 gallons of water and can pump 1,500 gallons a minute, Cruz said. In addition to buildings, the station covers five lakes, so it also has a boat at its disposal. At least one firefighter per shift is trained in diving.

Cruz said the department’s average response time is two minutes. The station has computers on each floor as well as in the apparatus bay and in the fire engines themselves, so by the time they get to where the call is — a dorm, for example — they know as much about the emergency as possible.

“We get to the dorm and we’ve got one guy who will go to the alarm panel, and he’s stationed there. That’s his location, to silence it or tell us, hey, we’ve got something else going on in here. The rest of the guys go upstairs or to wherever the alarm is, and we’re investigating it.”

When the department isn’t responding to emergencies, Cruz said it performs various services, whether maintaining fire safety at football games or overseeing normal campus activities.

“We cover everything on campus that goes on, so bonfires we have to light and babysit. Any kind of sports on campus we’re involved in, either watching … we’re managing it,” he said. “Or, for instance, they’re having a dinner at DPAC for a Snite gathering, and we have to provide emergency medical coverage and fire watch. They’ll have live flames on candles for the dinner, so they’ll shut the fire alarm system down. You can’t do that for any building without having a firefighter there for what we call fire watch to make sure nothing happens.”

Cruz said the department is also one of the main groups responding to electrical problems, such as the recent South Quad power outage or the larger outage in June, which left several people stuck in elevators.

“They were dealing with elevator entrapments,” he said. “So the power goes out; the elevator stops where it’s at. I think they did maybe 10 of those.”

Cruz said the station often receives visitors, whether interested visitors or alumni who participated in NDFD’s 135-year history.

“We get visitors from everywhere who stop by,” he said. “That, to me, is always the exciting part.”

The anniversary, said fire chief Bruce Harrison, was business as usual.

“We quietly did our job,” he said. “That was our celebration. We’re just happy to be here.”

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About Emily McConville

Emily McConville is a news writer and photographer for the Observer. She is a senior studying history and Italian with a minor in journalism. She is from Louisville, KY and lives off-campus.

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