Hook & Ladder

fire·fight·er \ ˈfī(-ə)r-ˌfī-tər  \ noun \ A person employed by a fire department to fight fires

The fire department at St. John's University (SJU), in Collegeville, Minnesota, was established in 1939. It was staffed by monks through 2000.  People magazine did a story on the fire department in the late 90's and affectionately referred to the monks as "fire monks" Today it's crew is comprised of monks, students and campus staff who complete the rigorous training to become certified first responders. They serve the university and surrounding communities answering fire calls, medical calls and other emergencies.

This spring, I spent a day with three student members of SJU's Fire Department. The purpose was to create environmental portraits. I also learned a lot about the job, history and tools of the trade.


(left to right) Noah, Lenard and Joe - sophomores at SJU. The staff has twenty-two total members. Sixteen of those are students. They get around 280 calls per year; 60% are medical calls and 40% are fire calls.


The fire department has two engines, a ladder truck, a type 5 wild land rig and an ambulance.


Fire fighters are allowed to have a moustache but no other facial hair because it interferes with the seal on their breathing aparatus. Noah told me that back in the day, before oxygen masks, most firemen sported a long handlebar mustache. They would wet their moustache and comb it over the mouth to filter out particles in the air.


Joe is standing next to Engine 3 and wearing regulation gear. This includes: helmet, turnout pants & jacket (which repel heat and absorb moisture), self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), personal alert safety system (PASS), gloves, boots, and a flashlight. PASS turns on automatically when the SCBA is in use. When a firefighter doesn't move for 30 seconds a soft alarm goes off which can be cleared by movement. If there is no movement for an additional 10 seconds the soft alarm becomes very loud to help other firefighters locate their downed colleague.


As we finished up the shoot at the station (and were ready to move to a nearby barn with an American flag painted on its side) a medical call came in and within seconds they took off in the ambulance to respond. I waited at the station for their return.


I had a great time working with Joe, Noah and Lenard. They take their job seriously and were more than willing to share the intricacies of being a first responder for the SJU's fire department. There are several traits of a successful firefighter/first responder. These include: integrity, physical fitness, communication, adaptability, dedication, team player and self sacrifice. I could see these characteristics in these young men and I thank them for their service!