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“Diligence and virtue are essential values to acting as a responsible representative of the community.” — William Cornacchia CC ’17
When he’s in his hometown of Darien, Conn., first-year William Cornacchia CC ’17 is constantly on the alert, waiting for his pager to beep. A certified and trained firefighter, Cornacchia, 18, is a member of the Darien Volunteer Fire Department and the youngest firefighter in his department to have earned the state certifications of Firefighter I, Hazardous Materials Awareness, and Hazardous Materials Operations.
Fighting fire is a high-stakes activity with a great deal of responsibility — not necessarily the sort of volunteer activity one often associates with the average teenager. And it’s hard work. “The course for my Connecticut state certification alone consisted of over 300 hours of training between the classroom and the field, aside from the practical training I have had to do with my department,” says Cornacchia, reflecting on the training he received while in high school. Now in his first year at Columbia, he plans to major in environmental biology.
Cornacchia’s certifications mean that he is able to fight structure fires in houses and buildings, as well as being allowed to assist with hazardous material spillages and contamination from chemical plants and vehicles in Connecticut. “Serving as a firefighter in a small town has taught me the values of hard work, kinship and community,” he says. “In general, the skills that I have learned have made me more aware of my environment and the potential hazards that exist in our everyday world.”
Hazards abound in the world of firefighting — every call carries the risk of serious injury and even death — so Cornacchia’s department has an established chain of command, from the Chief at the top down through the firefighters, so that each situation can be mitigated safely. “The top three tactical priorities of firefighting are life safety, of both the firefighters and the potential victims, incident stabilization — putting out a fire and returning conditions to a controlled state — and lastly, property conservation,” explains Cornacchia. A firefighter greatly reduces his risk of physical harm if he respects and follows the system of command. It’s also imperative to adapt to situations and act quickly at the scene of a fire or accident. And while all this can be daunting to an outsider — let alone your average teenager — Cornacchia has been mentored by senior members of his department. “They have always been willing to teach me how to perform certain tasks and give me the opportunities, insight and tools at training drills to try to stabilize an incident on my own.”
In the spring of 2013, Cornacchia experienced his most memorable occurrence thus far in his career as a firefighter: a tractor-trailer fire on I-95, a large highway that runs along the southern coast of Connecticut. A family was moving their belongings in the trailer, when the vehicle caught fire on the section of the highway that passes through the center of Cornacchia’s town. “When we arrived on scene the smoke was so thick that we couldn’t see the trailer itself, so the crew on my truck immediately exited the vehicle and put on our air packs so as not to inhale the smoke,” says Cornacchia. In a fire that burned for two hours, Cornacchia salvaged still-intact items from the trailer, operated the hose line and worked with fellow firefighters for three and a half hours until they completely extinguished the fire. “It was one of the most memorable incidents I responded to,” he says. “I worked alongside older members from my department who valued me as a beneficial resource, and helped save a family’s belongings while stabilizing an incident that had the potential to get worse.”
But Cornacchia’s duties as a firefighter have given him much more than just a unique backstory and a set of crucial skills. They have also left him with a sense of community from the close relationships he has with his firefighting colleagues: “I regard every member of my fire department as a brother or sister, and trust is essential. Kinship atop training is the basis of our functionality as a coherent unit at emergency scenes.” He also finds this has resonated with his college experience thus far. “The welcoming students at Columbia have created a similar environment and I am excited to begin building similar friendships as my Columbia years go on,” he says. “Diligence and virtue are essential values to acting as a responsible representative of the community,” he reflects, echoing values central to Columbia College’s Core texts. “As a Columbia student, I can appreciate the tight knit, supportive community which our school fosters.”
Mihika Barua CC ’15, from Mumbai, is a student web editor for the Columbia College website. A political science major, she is also editor of Spectrum, the blog of the Columbia Daily Spectator.
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