Cornell Varna Volunteer Firefighters Protect, Serve, Learn

On June 18, 2021 at 2 a.m. the Varna Volunteer Fire Brigade received a call: The Plantations Bar and Grill, a local favorite in the hamlet of Varna, was on fire.

For Tiffany Ho, MS ’17, it was her first assignment as a department head. For graduate students Mason Jager, DVM ’12, and Nikola Danev, it was their first fire, period.

The fire was too advanced to save the building when it arrived – fortunately no one was hurt – but the Varna force, along with the help of six other local departments, spent 16 hours securing the area and putting out the fire.

Tiffany Ho, MS ’17, leader of the Varna Volunteer Fire Company, shares a smile with members of the company.

Danev, a veteran paramedic and Varna’s deputy rescue chief, says the fire deepened his sense of purpose.

“It was an awakening for me. It was a place I used to go to, it was a common space for the Varna community,” he says. “They realize it’s not just a building fire, it’s people’s livelihoods and investments and their memories. That loss reminded me why we’re doing this and it made me a better firefighter.”

“We help people on what may be the worst day of their lives,” says Jager. “We get to know our neighbors and help them when they need it most. Outside of work, my involvement in Varna has truly been one of the most positive experiences of my adult life.”

This desire to help and connect with the local community has inspired an influx of students to the Varna Volunteer Fire Company over the past two years, bringing the cadre of around 20 members up in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has grown to more than 50 members . At least four alumni and 33 students — five graduate students and 28 undergraduates — are now active members, with many students taking on leadership roles.

“We have a great mix of people and a lot of young people,” says Jesse Kapstad ’24, who serves as the team’s EMS captain. “We are excited and ushering in a new era of firefighting, with a diverse group and a focus on safety.”

Varna, a hamlet in the town of Dryden with a population of around 800, is just a mile east of the central campus and borders Cornell Land. Volunteers have often had ties to Cornell in the past — the difference now is in the number of students involved, Danev says.

In the middle, Mason Jager, DVM ’12, takes part in training at the Varna Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Varna resident Dylan Mier, who serves as the first firefighter and board chairman, says the students have breathed new life into the station. “They’re excited and committed and they jump straight into training,” he says. “It gives me great hope to see that these young students are ready to commit themselves to something so big, bigger than themselves.”

The department responds to a range of property damage calls — including building fires, exposure to hazardous materials, flooded basements — and emergency medical calls, from lacerations to cardiac arrest. Motor vehicle accidents, ice rescue, bush fires and fallen wires or trees are also within their remit. The supply area extends far beyond Varna; At 16.7 square miles, it’s more than twice the size of the city of Ithaca and includes Ellis Hollow, another hamlet of about 1,500 people. The company is also part of an extensive mutual aid network of volunteer departments who support each other when needed. The station has five trucks of various sizes and purposes, as well as a bunkhouse where volunteers can stay for free in exchange for 40 hours of on-call service per week. Over the past year, the department has responded to more than 300 calls.

Students find many levels of community, beginning with the squad itself, which is distinctly diverse and inclusive. For starters, it is led by the only Asian female chief in the district, possibly the region, and has an almost even split between men and women – a rarity in fire departments.

“I was immediately struck by the diversity of the department, the mix of political views and socioeconomic backgrounds, racial, gender and gender diversity,” says Jager, who will join the veterinary school in the fall and has a home with his husband in Varna. “It wasn’t what you would expect from a rural volunteer fire department.”

“I just remember coming to my first meeting and they talked about it doesn’t matter how much experience you have, you can take courses and do the training and everyone is welcome,” says Arianna Josue’ 24

Josue found this greeting particularly meaningful. Her father trained as a paid firefighter in the Denver area as a young man and got some top marks on his exams, but was disbarred from the service because, he suspected, he was Latino. “He didn’t fit into the picture,” says Josue. “I don’t fit into the scheme. I don’t fit the stereotype. I’m female. I’m a five foot nothing. But I still have the opportunity and I am welcomed into it.”

The mix of community members and Cornell students on the roster serves well, Jager says, because the people bring a range of skills to the table — for example, a human resources student helped rewrite the department’s charter. Jager also says working with people on the squad who have different political views has been therapeutic.

“At the end of the day we all realize we have the same goal and that was important to me, especially when you see such division in the country right now, to work with people you might not otherwise agree to work with together to try to serve your community and save lives.”

Members of the Varna Volunteer Fire Brigade practice handling hoses during a weekly training session. The company is made up primarily of Cornell students, alumni, and employees.

Building these bridges extends to the community itself, Jager says, as students help people they might not otherwise meet or interact with. It also exposes students to the challenging socioeconomic realities of many families in our community.

“Varna is such a diverse area,” says Danev. “Some of the most harrowing days were when you were responding to a call at a mobile home and then a call at a villa and you see there’s this huge gap.”

On one of her first calls, Josue was able to comfort a child in a low-income family. “It changed everything for me,” she says. “I realized that there are people here who come from communities like mine that I can relate to and help in a unique way.”

Department leadership hopes to continue to build the squad with students and community members, and to support and encourage their volunteers to receive the necessary training for both medical and firefighting operations. The more fully trained volunteers, Ho says, the more reliable the company is for their area of ​​service and for providing mutual help to other departments.

Members of the Varna Volunteer Fire Brigade participate in a weekly training session.

“We have a great first batch of really active students and we’re hiring every semester,” says Ho. “Our goal is a healthy, well-functioning fire department.”

The students say the work they do in the community complements their studies — whether it’s seeing local government in action or gaining valuable experience in patient care for medical students. Their training at Varna has also given them invaluable life skills: the ability to communicate with and comfort those in need, how to remain calm in an emergency, how to overcome their fears.

“When we do training internally, even simple things like opening fire hydrants or driving the trucks – I always go in with this fear,” says Josue. “I don’t want to embarrass myself. But the next thing you know, I’m getting up and I’m able to do it. Simple things like going into a situation and believing in myself – that’s always the case.”

Varna Volunteer Fire Brigade meets at Varna railway station every Thursday at 6 p.m. and welcomes visitors. Open meetings are held on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. You will be recruiting at the station as part of April 23-24 from 11am-4pm RecruitNYa nationwide recruitment event organized by the New York State Firefighters Association.

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