The medical students’ involvement began in fall 2013 when several members of Cumberland Gap’s local firefighting team left the department. Some left to be closer to their families or work; some moved to neighboring, larger fire departments. The fire chief was ready for retirement. Cumberland Gap’s fire department was slated to be closed, with the service area to be absorbed by a nearby town.

Several medical students, including Brandon Wilkinson and Patrick Herling, stepped in to help. Both Wilkinson and Herling had emergency medical services experience before they came to the medical school. “It wasn’t a big stretch for us to come here and do this,” Herling says. “I grew up around EMS. Most of my family is involved in it, and that’s how I got into medicine. It’s been a great thing,” he says.

Still, the students have had to balance their firefighting duties with their studies. Once thus far, that has meant responding to a house fire in the middle of the night before a final exam.

By fall 2015, the department was staffed exclusively by medical students. Herling says they stepped up recruiting efforts to fulfill the need. “At first, it was just word of mouth, and we had maybe five or six students from each year’s class volunteer. This year, we had 40 students at our first meeting, and about 35 went through the initial 16 hours of training. That’s settled down to about 32 active members,” he says. Many of the new recruits have no experience in either firefighting or EMS, but everyone is trained and learns the skills they need to respond safely to fires.

Because of the number of volunteers on the roster, the Cumberland Gap Fire Department has gone from being a small unit of six or so firefighters that would need assistance from other neighboring departments for any serious situation, to a unit that is taking a more active role, able not only to hold their own in their service area, but also to respond to requests for aid from surrounding areas.

In such a rural area, medical students leave for their third and fourth years to go on rotation in more populated places. So the firefighters are made up of first- and second-year students as well as those who attend a master’s program meant to be a stepping stone to matriculating into medical school. Wilkinson says they’ve consciously worked to stratify their roster to represent a mix of students in terms of year of study, so that they’re not left high and dry when students leave the area.

“We do have a constant drop-off as students move on, but we can plan for it,” Wilkinson says. “It gives us a constant need to train, which isn’t an unhealthy thing. Our training doesn’t get stagnant.” They’re also actively pinpointing those who may be willing and able to step into leadership roles in the department in the future.

To increase awareness and interest in the fire department, the student firefighters conduct a fire-safety orientation for new students, explaining everything from basic fire safety in the dorms to how the department trains and responds to fires. But they don’t stop there. They have a strong desire to connect with and give back to the community.

“We need to give back,” says Herling. “We need to get to know this community.” Herling spearheaded a project designed to do just that: building a dog park in the town. They raised money from local businesses to fence in 1.5 acres with water and a covered picnic area. Wilkinson says the town has embraced the project and it has been well-received. “We’re complimented on it every day,” he says.