Cornell Varna fire volunteers protect, serve, learn
By Caitlin Hayes
On June 18, 2021, at 2 a.m., the Varna Volunteer Fire Company received a call: the Plantations Bar and Grill, a local favorite in the hamlet of Varna, was on fire.
For Tiffany Ho, M.S. ‘17, it was her first fire as chief of the department. For doctoral students Mason Jager, DVM ’12, and Nikola Danev, it was their first fire, period.
The fire was too far advanced upon arrival to save the structure – luckily, no one was harmed – but the Varna squad, along with help from six other local departments, spent 16 hours securing the area and putting out the blaze.
Danev, an experienced EMT and Varna’s assistant chief of EMS, says the fire deepened his sense of purpose.
“It was an awakening for me. That was a place I had gone to frequently, that was a shared space for the Varna community,” he says. “You realize it’s not just a structure fire, but it’s people’s livelihoods and investments and their memories. That loss reminded me of why we do this, and it made me a better firefighter.”
“What we’re doing is helping people on potentially the worst day of their lives,” Jager says. “We’re getting to know our neighbors and helping them when they need it most. Outside work, my involvement with Varna has really been one of the most positive experiences of my adult life.”
This desire to help and connect to the local community has inspired an influx of students to the Varna Volunteer Fire Company over the past two years, growing the squad from around 20 members in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to more than 50 members. At least four alumni and 33 students – five graduate students and 28 undergraduates – are now active members, with many students taking on leadership roles.
“We’ve got a great mix of people and a lot of young people,” says Jesse Kapstad ‘24, who serves as the squad’s EMS captain. “We’re enthusiastic and ushering in a new age of firefighting, with a diverse group and a focus on safety.”
Varna, a hamlet in the town of Dryden with a population of around 800, is just a mile east of central campus and borders Cornell land. Volunteers in the past have often had ties to Cornell – the difference now is the number of students involved, says Danev.
Varna resident Dylan Mier, who serves as first fire captain and board chair, says the students have brought new life to the station. “They’re excited and committed and jumping right in to training,” he says. “It gives me a lot of hope to see these young students willing to commit to something so big, bigger than themselves.”
The department responds to a range of damaged property calls – including structure fires, hazardous material exposures, flooded basements – and emergency medical calls, anything from a cut to cardiac arrest. Motor vehicle accidents, ice rescue, brush fires, and downed wires or trees also fall under their purview. The coverage area extends well beyond Varna; at 16.7 square miles, it’s more than double the size of the city of Ithaca and includes Ellis Hollow, another hamlet with a population of around 1,500. The company is also part of an extensive mutual aid network of volunteer departments that support each other when needed. The station has five trucks of various sizes and purposes and a bunkhouse, where volunteers can live for free in exchange for 40 hours of on-call shifts per week. Last year, the department responded to more than 300 calls.
Students are finding many levels of community, beginning with the squad itself, which is markedly diverse and inclusive. To start, it’s led by the only Asian female chief in the county, possibly the region, and has an almost even split between men and women – a rarity in fire departments.
“I was immediately taken by the diversity of the department, the mix of political views and socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and gender and sex diversity,” says Jager, who will join the College of Veterinary Medicine faculty in the fall and owns a house with his husband in Varna. “It was not what you would expect from a rural volunteer fire department.”
“I just remember coming to my first meeting, and they were talking about how it doesn’t matter what your experience level is, you can take classes and do the training, and everyone is welcome,” says Arianna Josue ‘24.
Josue found this welcome particularly significant. Her father trained to be a paid firefighter in the Denver area as a young man, and earned some of the highest marks on his exams, but was excluded from joining the force because, he suspected, he is Latino. “He didn’t fit the mold,” Josue says. “I don’t fit the mold. I don’t fit the stereotype. I’m female. I’m five-foot nothing. But I still have the opportunity, and I’m being welcomed into it.”
The mix of community members and Cornell students on the squad serves it well, Jager says, with people bringing a range of skills – a human resources student helped to rewrite the department’s bylaws, for instance. Jager also says working with people on the squad who have different political views has been therapeutic.
“At the end of the day, we all recognize that we have the same goal, and that’s been important for me, especially when you see such division in the country right now, to work with people you might not otherwise agree with, to work together to try to help your community and save lives.”
Building those bridges extends to the community itself, Jager says, as students help people they might not otherwise meet or interact with. It also exposes students to the challenging socioeconomic realities of many families in our community.
“Varna is such a diverse area,” Danev says. “Some of the most jarring days have been when you respond to a call in a mobile home and then one in a mansion, and you see there’s this huge gap.”
On one of her first calls, Josue was able to comfort a child in a lower-income family. “That changed everything for me,” she says. “It made me realize that there are people here who come from communities like mine who I can relate to and help in a unique way.”
The department leadership hopes to continue to build the squad with students and community members and to support and encourage their volunteers in gaining the necessary training for both medical and fire calls. The more volunteers who are fully trained, Ho says, the more reliable the company will be for their service area, as well as for mutual aid for other departments.
“We have a great first group of really active students, and we’re recruiting every semester,” says Ho. “Our goal is to have a healthy, well-functioning fire department.”
Students say the work they do in the community complements their studies – whether it’s seeing local government in action or gaining valuable patient care experience for pre-med students. Their training with Varna has also provided invaluable life skills: the ability to communicate and comfort those in distress, how to stay calm in an emergency, how to overcome their fears.
“When we’re going to do a training in-house, even simple things like opening fire hydrants, or driving the trucks – every single time, I go into it with this mindset of fear,” Josue says. “I don’t want to embarrass myself. But the next thing you know I get up, and I’m able to do it. Simple things like going into a situation and having faith in myself – that is always going to apply.”
The Varna Volunteer Fire Company convenes at the Varna station every Thursday at 6 p.m. and welcomes visitors. Open meetings are held on the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. They will be recruiting at the station on April 23-24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., as part of RecruitNY, a state-wide recruiting event organized by the Firefighters Association of the State of New York.