In Corvallis, cramming for finals one day, fighting fires the next

Gregory Murphy and Jakob Eisenbeiss, student volunteer firefighters, work for the Corvallis Fire Department in exchange for room and board. (Photo by Isabella Ash)

Jakob Eisenbeiss could see the roaring flames from four blocks away.

He heard the cries of concerned neighbors as the flames consumed the house beside theirs, wondering if their home would be next. But Eisenbeiss could not afford to get distracted. He had a job to do. With his lieutenant at his side, he got to work.

Eisenbeiss felt drained after the July fire was out. He tried to quench his thirst by chugging water. Despite his exhaustion, his day was not done. Eisenbeiss still needed to put away his equipment and hose down the firetruck. His shift finally ended at 3 a.m.

Eisenbeiss was in class less than four hours later.

The 20-year-old Oregon State University student volunteers for the Corvallis Fire Department through a year-round program that offers free housing in fire stations and emergency training to participants who work at least 120 hours per month. The seven volunteers this summer are college students. They balance the life of a firefighter and the life of a college student, squeezing homework sessions between emergency calls.

Despite his conflicting responsibilities, Eisenbeiss said he is glad he is in the program.

“It’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

The fire department’s emergency calls have more than doubled over the past 25 years, but its paid employees have increased by only a fraction, said Division Chief Douglas Baily. The volunteer program helps fill positions created by the lack of workers. Most of the participants in the resident volunteer program are college students who can eliminate the financial stress of paying for a dorm room. At Oregon State, the least expensive dorm was about $2,000 a quarter in 2018.

Gregory Murphy, an 18-year-old student from Linn Benton Community College, is a residential volunteer firefighter. He shares a small room with two others. Half walls separate their three beds.

“It’s not too bad once you get used to it,” Murphy said.

Fire department volunteers work at five stations across the Corvallis Rural Fire District. They are expected to respond to emergencies at any moment when they are on duty and live in the stations alongside professionals.

They work 24 hours on duty, then 48 off duty, allowing them to attend college classes. They often study in the stations’ dorms. Murphy studies civil engineering, and Eisenbiess studies biology and pre-medicine. They have to be ready to drop their homework when the alarm sounds.

“There are some nights I just wish I lived in a dorm,” Murphy said.

The volunteers balance school and firefighting with support from teachers and colleagues. Their rule is to be a student first, volunteer second, Murphy said.

The firefighters make their way to the station’s gym every afternoon. Afterward, the station kitchen fills with the aroma of a home-cooked meal, cooked by a different firefighter every day. The crew gathers at the table to eat dinner, which one night included Hawaiian chicken and rice.

Sometimes Eisenbeiss scrubs the floors when the fire station’s bathroom is dirty.

“If you want to earn your crew’s trust, you have to do the little things,” he said.

Murphy isn’t sure whether he will be a firefighter after college. But he appreciates the program paying for his EMT training and he’s grateful for the experience.

“It shaped things I want to do and things I don’t want to do,” he said.

Other volunteers go on to fight fires as a career. Some professional Corvallis firefighters started out as volunteers. Eisenbeiss’ experience as a volunteer made him consider becoming a firefighter. His passion grew over time, he said.

“I am reflecting something bigger than myself,” Eisenbeiss said.

— Isabella Ash, Ashland High School
— Maria Pena Cornejo, Parkrose High School