The Sewanee Volunteer Fire Department admires the view from Templeton Library. Photo courtesy of Taylor Brower (C’20).
By Anna Mann
The 17 men and one woman of Sewanee’s Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) sat around Fire Chief Taylor Hall’s (C’20) room on the first floor of Ayres. Some sat on the bed, others the desk, couch, or floor. There’s an American flag on the wall, a white board covered in the week’s schedule, and another flag near the bed that boasts “Give a Damn” in bold font. This is their new common space: a wing on the first floor of Ayres hall.
With the domino effect of the moves to and from Carnegie Hall, the SVFD was informed a little more than a year ago that the art history department would move into Wiggins Hall. According to Hall, the announcement was made around fall break of 2018. Up until that point, Wiggins had housed the SVFD since the mid 1990s.
Obviously, the transition period held a plethora of challenges. These ranged from automatically driving to Wiggins that first week, to fiddling with the showerheads in the bathroom in order to get good water pressure, to forgetting to take laundry out on time and finding it left on the washer instead of placed in the dryer.
Hall explained that initially, only the officers of the department knew about the move. Fearful to lose the community aspect of the department, and the benefits associated with being a fireman, he admitted that resistance “erupted” when they told the rest of the department.
After the initial shock subsided though, the department began to settle into their new living space: the right wing of first floor Ayres. Yet, each senior member echoed the same thing: the community aspect of Wiggins Hall was missing. Senior Josh Szymczak (C’20) stated that: “we’re working on [the transition], but at the end of the day, it’s up to us to be intentional about making a community of it.”
Carl Failing (C’21) agreed with Szymczak by explaining that the change has at least given the department a more approachable image. Through living with the people they serve, doing laundry with them, cooking and sharing space, SVFD can no longer remain an island.
Hall furthered his point by stating that “If there is an upside it’s gotten us more focused on the importance of maintaining good relations with the school. We’re more vigilant in maintaining our image and the way people view us and associate us with something bigger than ourselves. All of that intrinsically has helped shape us up a bit.”
However, he did admit that without the common space that Wiggins provided, that many of the members have opted to spend more time in their rooms rather than together. “People stay in their personal bedrooms more often with their doors shut, away from each other,” he stated. “It’s led to a surge of isolation at large, which is just kind of disheartening.”
Where before they would group up to talk it out after a particularly rough call, Hall stated that without a common area, the discussions took place less and less. Many members seemed to echo the sentiment, and Mary Patton Sims (C’21) said, “[a common space] is not just something we deserve, it helps us do our job better.”
The job has remained important since its beginnings in September of 1950. Where the SVFD began, according to a Purple from October 1950, when Fire Chef John McGrory “realized the need for an organized Volunteer Fire Department after the Union burned.”
An opinion piece from February of the following year stated that the new department had “inspected fire hazards, held patrols day and night, and subjected themselves to weary hours of drill. Their practices have borne fruit. Thinking students in every class, especially the upper ones, who remember the merry disorganization of which always went hand in hand with fire, have remarked on the efficiency of the present-day fire-fighters.”
Second-in-command Alpo Sipilä (C’20) revealed that the department has struggled to communicate with the administration after their official move to Ayres Hall. Though the outside of the station has been renovated, the department has yet to hear about a common room space.
At the time of publication, neither the Office of Residential Life or the Dean of Students were able to comment on the state of the department. However, according to Hall, there are “No plans right now, whoever is making the plans is unreachable.”
As for the future of the SVFD, Hall explained that without the added benefit of living in an autonomous space, that less people may try out for the department. However, he adds that people will join inevitably for a “multitude of reasons,” and those that are drawn to the department this year will simply be more “specific” than the recruits in the past.
As the department continues to settle into Ayres, Hall stressed that the SVFD has adjusted to the change “exceedingly well” because they possess a “clear picture” of why they volunteer in the first place.
At the end of the meeting, Szymczak shrugged and pointed around the room, “This right here,” he stated, “is Wiggins.”