‘Not just squirting water and climbing ladders’: An inside look at Aetna Hose, Hook & Ladder Company

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On the corner of East Delaware Avenue and Academy Street stands a two-story brick building. A fire truck and ambulance often dash out of the building into nearby streets, and firefighters sit outside enjoying sunny Newark days. 

It is that spot where a group of full-time, part-time and volunteer emergency responders work to keep the university community and members of the city of Newark safe as part of the Aetna Hose, Hook & Ladder Company. 

While some days at Station 9 are relatively quiet, others are nonstop for the volunteers and staff that cover a 45-square-mile area.

“Every day, you never know what to expect,” Sophia Sahadzic, a part-time EMT at Aetna, said. “Some days you may come in, and the second you step foot in the fire house, you get a call. You kind of have to learn as you go on the way to the call.”

Sahadzic, a criminal justice and psychology major and sophomore at the university, is one of many students involved as an EMT at Aetna. From students in the health sciences looking to gain valuable experience to others searching for some extra income, many Blue Hens are involved with Aetna’s Station 9.

Ethan Grandin/THE REVIEW

Junior Ellie O’Keefe began interning at the fire department this September. She has hopes of going into the medical field after her undergraduate career.

“I think it’s really awesome that I’m getting so much firsthand experience,” O’Keefe, an EMT candidate going through field certification, said. “Especially here, we get so many calls. So I’m just really getting pushed into it, and I really think it’s going to help me later.”

O’Keefe  has found it easy to work alongside some of the career staff and firefighters, despite differences in ages, experiences and roles. She said she has learned a lot about patient care from the firefighters there.

Since 2017, Aetna has offered a Live-In Program for students, which provides housing on Skid Row – across the street from the station – for volunteer firefighters and EMTs that are attending the university.The program targets those with experience or skills in firefighting or first response, and of all the students that apply every year, 12 are selected.

Students that intern or work part-time hit the ground running in assisting on calls and working long shifts – sometimes overnight.

“It forces you to mature quickly,” Aetna spokesman Lawrence Tan said. “And people can see that.”

“It’s not just squirting water and climbing ladders,” Aetna President Dan Seador said. “There’s a lot that goes into being a firefighter and being part of the fire service.”

What’s in a day – or night?

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly a typical shift looks like for a member of the Aetna team.

Some nights are spent on the second-floor beds, while others consist of call after call.

“I just know coming into a shift, I have to be prepared for anything,” Sahadzic said. “You never know if you’re going to be sleeping through the whole night or if you’re not even going to reach the bed.”

Nights are often busy, especially during semesters with the population in Newark higher than normal. In 2022, Aetna responded to over 3,323 fire incidents and 10,650 requests for emergency medical assistance, according to its website.

As of Sept. 30 of this year, the crew has responded to over 2,800 fire calls and just below 9,000 EMS calls. 

Shifts run from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. for full-time members, and there are typically four full-time firefighters per shift, said Seador.

In addition to the full-timers, a few people in administrative positions work at a time, along with around eight EMTs. But when it comes to fully staffing their crews and apparatuses, it’s not always smooth sailing for fire departments such as Aetna.

Ethan Grandin/THE REVIEW

Tackling obstacles

Seador told The Review about some of the challenges facing fire departments across the country. Aetna’s Board of Directors, for one, is made up of people who usually have responsibilities elsewhere.

“Most of these people have full-time jobs,” he said. “So they’re squeezing in the business of running the fire department when they’re not at a full-time job.”

And for the first responders – many of whom are volunteers – the day-to-day has changed. Seador, who has been a member since 1980, said while it used to be a respond-from-home model when the sirens went off, now members operate with the firehouse as their home base.

“That means time away from your spouse or your family,” Seador, who assumed the role of president in 2017, said. “That’s a personal commitment and a challenge.”

Even with a handful of full-time staff at Aetna, volunteers are the backbone of the life-saving services provided. 

According to 2020 data from the National Fire Protection Association, over 670,000 firefighters in the country are volunteers (about 65%). That mark is something Seador feels is easy for many to overlook.

The NFPA did note that volunteer firefighters noticeably decreased in 2020, which is also a trend seen at Aetna, according to Seador.

Add to that the rising costs of supplying ambulances, fire trucks and equipment, and it becomes clear that there are challenges left and right for fire departments.

“It’s gotten incredibly expensive … from everything from equipping a firefighter to maintaining the fire stations to buying a piece of fire apparatus,” Seador said. “We used to be able to write a check to buy a fire engine or an ambulance.

“We can’t save enough money fast enough to go write checks anymore. So from a financial perspective, it’s extremely challenging.”

Ethan Grandin/THE REVIEW

Camaraderie in the station

There is no shortage of laughs inside the walls of Station 9 , along with inside jokes, partnerships and friendships.

EMT Maddie McCarter sees the station’s camaraderie as a testament to its people.

“I really believe this company has some of the best people in it,” McCarter, who graduated from the university last year, said. “I’ve volunteered at other companies, and I just think the people here are the best.

“These people are together for 24 hours for a time, and you get to know each other very well, especially working on the ambulance. It doesn’t really matter if you’re fire or EMS. We’re all a family here, we all care about each other.”

Even as college students, Sahadzic and O’Keefe expressed similar sentiments, not just for their EMS peers, but for the firefighters and other staff as well.

With the job being physically and mentally demanding, members say it’s necessary to have those close bonds with co-workers in order to foster a healthy work environment. The atmosphere pays dividends, especially when an Aetna member needs someone to lean on after a rough trip in the ambulance or fire truck.

McCarter said everyone is able to talk to one another inside the station, especially after someone works a call that might stick with them for days.

Ethan Grandin/THE REVIEW

“You can’t go out everyday as either a firefighter or EMT and face the kind of things we face without having some sense of camaraderie with the people you’re working with shoulder-to-shoulder,” Seador said.

“We like to joke around a lot, but at the same time, we always have each other’s backs,” Sahadzic said. “Because we do go out on these calls that can be dangerous at times, we know we have to trust each other. We definitely do always have each other’s backs.”

Seador also mentioned that post-incident discussions and crisis intervention teams are part of the internal efforts at Aetna to assist members mentally and emotionally. It’s especially important for new members, especially the EMTs, who are gaining their first experience at the Newark station.

“As a new EMT, you can see things in the first month or two that most people wouldn’t see in their lifetime,” Seador said.

But along with the dangers, physical wear and emotional toll, members gain invaluable experiences at the station in downtown Newark. Even in just a few months, O’Keefe feels right at home in those brick walls.
“I was really nervous I was going to come in and be like, ‘Wow, I don’t know anyone,’” O’Keefe said. “But everyone is so welcoming and so excited for new people to become a part of EMS.”

Originally posted 2023-12-12 14:00:00.