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JMU student volunteers at hose company No. 4 reflect on Southview fire

  • 5 min to read
JMU student volunteers at hose company No. 4 reflect on Southview fire

Nine student volunteers were present at the fire under their 25-pound gear while carrying 30-pound heavy packs.

It was a sweatpants kind of day — or so she thought. Heather Pruim ran out of UREC, gripping her backpack. She hopped in her car and frantically drove toward Devon Lane. Stuck in Port Republic traffic, she tapped her foot on the floorboard, waiting for the lights to change, her eyes on the smoke through her windshield. She threw her car in park behind Eagle Carpet and retrieved her equipment from the back of her car. 

As she tied her hair back before tucking it beneath her hood, she thought to herself, “Don’t let my hair light me on fire today.” She then stepped into her boots and pulled her Nomex pants up over them. 

Then, she ran a half mile uphill toward the smoke.

The fire was blowing through the roof of 1083 Lois Lane, forming a huge ball of smoke. While many students lined up behind the yellow tape at Thursday’s Southview fire, nine student volunteers were inside the tape under 25-pound gear and carrying 30-pound heavy packs with oxygen. 

Among these student volunteers for Hose Company No. 4 was junior communication studies major Pruim, senior integrated science and technology major Brent Davis and junior engineering major Chris Smith. Their helmets may have made them indistinguishable, but they were Dukes saving Dukes. 

When Davis was walking up to the scene, a girl told him that her cat was on the third floor and asked him to save it. This was one of the biggest fires Davis had ever seen — he knew as he walked away from the girl toward the fire, the third floor was gone.

“I knew right away that there was nothing on the third floor,” Davis said. “You tell them that you’re going to do everything you can, but in the back of your mind, you just know that there’s nothing on the third floor.”

“You’re supposed to be ... a saving grace to them. It just, it can be tough,” Davis said. For Davis, this moment and seeing everyone behind the tape “crying and hurting” was the hardest part about that day.

After handing in their accountability tags on site, one of Pruim and Davis’ jobs was salvage — trying to save as much as possible from the damage. Pruim said most of the damage that goes along with fires is from the water, not the fire itself. So, as a part of the salvage process, they covered as much as they could with tarps such as furniture — or in Pruim’s case, pictures.

“I always really try to save pictures because I feel like that has more sentimental value,” Pruim said. “Being, like, that it’s a college student living space, even if it’s like a pass-down of a painting from your ‘Big’ or something, like, I feel like that’s what people care about.”

Pruim hopes to have made even a small difference for those affected but is also grateful that apart from a few pets, only material possessions were destroyed in the fire.

“We try to do all we can, and sometimes, you know, stuff does get lost,” Pruim said. “But luckily, no people were lost. So, you can replace, you know, objects, but you can’t replace people.”

Around 7:15 p.m., after a long day of fighting the fire at Southview, a white fire truck — part of what they call the “great white fleet” — could be seen on its way to Texas Roadhouse.

But it’s more than the Southview fire and fighting fires.

It’s training together, spending nights at the firehouse, finding people who’ll answer that 1 a.m. call or taking one of the “great white fleet” trucks out so a peer can practice their driving.

Ironically, their friends’ group chat is called “everyday heroes” — a joke Pruim explains is contrary to her reality.

“Joining the fire department is when you’re a hero. Anything beyond that is just, like, line of duty,” Pruim said. 

These “everyday heroes” are also part of the JMU firefighters club. The club isn’t affiliated with the fire department, but while the club itself doesn’t fight fires, some of the members volunteer for Hose Company No. 4. The club offers students training and opportunities to become certified through the fire academy. This is the club’s fourth year, and in the last year alone it’s grown from 12 to 42 people. Pruim is the president of the club, and Davis and Smith are members.

While Smith had wanted to be a firefighter since he was little, he didn’t start until he joined the club his freshman year. He officially became certified spring of his sophomore year and said that when he first started, he was warned that he’d be hooked.  

“It’s so addicting,” Smith said. “It’s not so much the adrenaline rush of, like, being in a fire ... it’s the helping people part.”

Smith is now a volunteer and a captain for Hose Company No. 4, a part-time firefighter for Rockingham County and is continually looking to improve.

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firefighter with long pole
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front view of the fire
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close up view of the fire
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front view of fire raging
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smoke above the treeline

“The community expects the best out of us, so if we’re not training when we’re not on calls, then that’s an issue because we have to be prepared for whatever we arrive on scene to,” Smith said.

Pruim, a fourth-generation firefighter, joined her local fire department at age 16 and recently had her four-year anniversary as a firefighter. When she started, she was the first female to be a part of the junior fire department. While being a female has made her work twice as hard and demand respect, she, by no means, lets this identify her. 

“My big thing that I really want to emphasize is that it’s no different than being a male firefighter. I believe in equality, and I think that really helped push me to be where I am today.”

Pruim additionally believes in separating JMU and firefighting in her life. She lives what she calls a double life: She’s a firefighter, a student involved in Bluestone Communications, a member of Alpha Sigma Tau and a UREC employee.

Davis’ interest in firefighting, on the other hand, was sparked by flames. He was around 10 years old, and it was Christmas dinner at his grandpa’s when the chimney caught fire. Davis explained that when the firefighters showed up, they made everyone feel calm.

Davis, who’s also a Captain for Hose Company No. 4, said that instead of joining a fraternity, he joined the fire department, which became his brotherhood. Since becoming captain, he’s had the chance to foster those values.

“It’s made me grow; it’s made me learn a lot more,” Davis said. “It’s kinda showed me how a fire department should be ran and how, you know, how to keep the brotherhood going.”

Although Davis has wanted to be a firefighter since he was in middle school, he doesn’t plan on being a career firefighter since the pay isn’t the best. Chris is contracted to the Air Force through ROTC, but one of his roles in Air Force civil engineering will be to oversee the fire department and says there’s a possibility he’ll return to it in the future. Pruim also doesn’t plan on making a career of it but looks to volunteer as long as she’s physically able. 

But for right now, the three still work approximately 35 hours per week and relish in the opportunity.

“You can get a certificate, which is great, but you’re not gonna get what you need unless you get that experience, and that comes with time,” Davis said. 

For Pruim, this experience is a passion project. For Davis, this is a brotherhood. For Smith, this is a blessing. For all of them, this is family. 

“If you crawl through fire with somebody, if you’re standing out in the rain directing traffic, if you’re seeing gory things that not every person sees on the day-to-day, you really bond, and these JMU firefighters are my best friends,” Pruim said. 

Contact Shanna Kelly at breezepress@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

 

Shanna Kelly is a double major in SMAD (journalism) and Spanish with a double minor in translation and interpretation and honors interdisciplinary studies. In addition to The Breeze, Shanna is also an active member of Kappa Alpha Theta.