The 2018-2019 Sewanee Volunteer Fire Department in front of one of the engines. Photo courtesy of Rocky Tips.
By Travis Nadalini
One need look no further than Ivana Porashka’s recent article, “Students and Teachers React to the Carnegie Renovation Plan,” to know that the renovation plan, especially with the apparent lack of transparent communication and organization surrounding it, has fueled contention among Sewanee students and faculty members. What the article neglects to reveal, however, is how the plan’s call to turn Wiggins Hall into an art history building would greatly, and detrimentally, affect Sewanee’s 18 dedicated student volunteer firefighters.
The perceived identity of the Sewanee Student Volunteer Fire Department may change from person-to-person. Some might see us as a group of students who revel in the glory of responding to trivial dorm alarms. Others might perceive our desire to serve as one that is sparked by little more than the outlet to get out of class which firefighting sometimes provides. The natures of these perceptions are not random guesses but rather credible hypotheses based upon how we are treated by some of the people we serve, especially those who wield influence over us.
For example, we can deduce from the police department’s decision to fine us $500, an ironic result of our building of a small, controlled campfire on a wet day without a permit, that while they purport to respect our training-based fire extinguishment abilities, they actually see us as no more capable than the fraternity and sorority members who build fires with much more limited experience.
We can likely gather from the administration’s neglect to so much as inquire about the prospect of providing us counseling, coupled with their refusal to entertain the idea of allowing us to possess a dog for therapeutic purposes, that they either do not fully understand the extent of our service, or their displays of graciousness for and understanding of our sacrifice are nothing more than rhetorical ploys.
The truth? We are a group of driven men and women, who, despite encompassing a wide array of hobbies, ideologies, and personalities, are tightly-bound together by an inherent, shared desire to serve something bigger than ourselves. We are highly-trained, and we respond to a variety of incidents in Sewanee, as well as far-reaching surrounding areas of Sewanee, which include structure fires, car fires, vehicle extrications, and high-angle rope rescues, to name a few.
Above all, we are drawn to protect the vulnerable in environments of chaos and conflict, even when doing so sometimes means putting our lives on the line. As a result, we have coalesced into a tight-knit family, wherein our acquired trust and belief in each other affords us confidence as we are propelled into dangerous and complex scenarios. This department has truly provided both the students and the alumni with a life-long individual and collective identity rooted in love, fellowship, hardships, and tenacity—the power of which cannot be justly described in words.
Wiggins Hall has been home to the SVFD for thirty years. Photo courtesy of Mary Patton Sims (C’21).
Wiggins Hall has served for decades as the center, literally and symbolically, of this identity. It has provided us with a safe space, autonomous from our fellow students, where we can come together to openly and vulnerably talk through emotionally difficult calls, and a space where we can be the loud, lovingly rambunctious, and passionate people that tight-knit firefighters should be—without constraint. Wiggins Hall is the foundation of our bond and therefore the foundation of the Sewanee Student Volunteer Fire Department as well.
We would like to make it clear that we do not consider ourselves to be more important than the art history department, nor would a negative outcome for us affect our level of commitment to serving Sewanee. That said, we implore the administration and the Board of Regents to strongly consider whether Wiggins Hall is the best possible location on the massive 13,000-acre Sewanee campus for the art history building.
Dean of Students Marichal Gentry and Vice President of Risk Management and Institutional Effectiveness Eric Hartman have advised us that our best option at this point would be to apply for a theme house and hope we are accepted. This advice is a strong indication of the low level of esteem in which the administration holds us. Whether we are ultimately forced to vacate Wiggins Hall or not, we deserve to be heard, and our voices deserve to be met with a higher level of respect, empathy, and consideration than they are at this time. We are more than a theme.