Local Emergency Services Attract Students Who Want to ‘Give Back’

August 31, 2021 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

The town-gown connection is strong at the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department.

While some University of Virginia students choose to stay on Grounds, others become integral members of the surrounding community. Some even stay after graduation, maintaining the connections they have forged. Henry Nixon, a member of both the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, is among the latest wave of those who stayed.

The Augusta, Georgia, native, who graduated in May with a degree in computer science, had a friend who was a volunteer firefighter in Tennessee. That inspired Nixon to look into joining the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department as a first-year student.

“I saw the fire truck at the Student Activities Fair and thought, ‘This would be fun,’” he said. “And four years later, I am a senior firefighter/EMT,” or emergency medical technician.

Nixon volunteered for the same reasons as many first responders.

“At a base level, all of us like helping people,” he said. “I want to do more. I didn’t want to join a club at UVA that did investment or cybersecurity. I wanted to do something that was me giving back.

“What I really love about it is that I go on a call and it is me who is helping the person, who is bandaging up your head when you hit a lamppost. When you are in a car crash and you are stuck, it is me who is cutting you out. It is a very direct way of giving back. I immediately see the action, and part of it is fun.”

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Nixon leaning against a fire truck holding a cup

Nixon is one of many Seminole Trial volunteers who are current and former UVA students.

UVA alumnus Jeff Bozzone, a Seminole Trail battalion chief, appreciates the students’ enthusiasm and eagerness to learn.

“They are like sponges, in a learning mode in their roles as students,” he said. “They are prepared for learning and do well. It is a matter of, ‘How can I best teach them?’ We have to do that efficiently.”

Bozzone, who studied engineering at UVA in the early 1980s, became a firefighter while he was a first-year student living in Lile House. He said his roommate, who had been a firefighter in Fairfax County, convinced him to volunteer, and they started out at Seminole Trail when its equipment was kept in a large, three-bay garage at the Oakwood Mobile Home Park and the department held its meetings at a church on Rio Road.

Seminole Trail Capt. Alice Thomson described the appeal to students as “multi-level marketing” –  “We have washers and driers here and we feed people,” she joked. Thomson, a member of the department for eight years, also found the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department through the activities fair as a student.

“I never thought of this sort of thing before, but then I was approached [at the activities fair] by female member of the department,” she said. “I like being pushed. There were only four female officers here before me. It takes a lot of proving to yourself that you can do it.”

Nixon pointing to a map on a computer monitor

For the volunteers, the fire department influences other parts of their lives.

Thomson earned a degree in English and government, and then a master’s degree in public policy from UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She worked as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill – which she said she found “soul-sucking” – and came back to UVA for a master’s degree in nursing. Now she is working as an ICU nurse at the UVA Medical Center.

On a recent Friday night the firehouse crew celebrated Thomson’s nursing degree and job with a cake after dinner.

“I gravitate to things that never finish,” she said. “There is always another call. It is never boring. My friends are here. I met my fiancé here.”

For Thomson, her work in emergency services and her hands-on experiences as a nurse affect her view of public policy and policymakers, many of whom she observed have never worked as boots-on-the-ground firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians. She still wants to work in the policy arena using her nursing and EMT experience to help her craft health policy.

Working at the firehouse has shaped her life, she said. “I would not have made the decisions I have made without this place. There is a town-gown divide, and I never would have taken an EMT class if I had not been here. I would be a different person.”

Entrance of the gray blue two story Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire House

Nixon, who works in cybersecurity, would also be a different person. He took a job with the SAS Institute, a software firm in Cary, North Carolina, first as an intern and then as a full-time employee working remotely.

“When you think of the stereotypical computer science major, you think of someone who does not do much outside of his or her computer,” he said. “Doing this teaches me social skills. I can interact with anybody. … It teaches me responsibility, and if I am going to do something, I am going to do it all the way.”

Walker Smith agrees. Smith, who graduated from UVA in 2020 as a double major in mechanical and aerospace engineering, then added a master’s in aerospace engineering in 2021, is working in hypersonic modeling for defense contractor Modern Technology Solutions Inc. in Alexandria.

“When I first started firefighting, it helped me tremendously with confidence and handling stressful situations,” he said. “There aren’t too many situations more serious than some of the emergencies we respond to, so you pretty quickly learn to handle yourself in a calm manner. It’s also important that you’re confident in your actions, because the public and patients can become nervous and may act unpredictably if they sense too much hesitation, which may result in someone getting hurt.”

Smith drives from Alexandria to Charlottesville for weekend shifts at Seminole Trail, which he described as his “commute to reality.” Smith said Northern Virginia lacks good opportunities for volunteer firefighting, Also, by continuing to volunteer at Seminole Trail he can visit family and friends while in town.

Walker Smith leaning on a Seminole Trail Firetruck looking at the camera smiling
Walker Smith, a recent UVA graduate, works in Alexandria, but continues to volunteer at the Seminole Trail Fire Department on weekends.

“I’ve gotten fairly attached to the station and many of the other volunteers there, so it’s nice to get to see everyone regularly,” he said.

Sean O’Connor, who in 2008 received a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies from UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, works remotely on search engines for Lucidworks, a San Francisco company. He, too, said he sees the fire department as his anchor and that his time there has greatly improved his common sense.

“This reminds me that blue-collar is not simple, and it reminds me not to overthink things,” he said. “I have seen several groups of super-smart UVA students come through here and they come out more well-rounded because they have learned some real-life lessons.”

Nixon, who stayed in Charlottesville specifically to continue his work with the fire department and rescue squad, works a 12-hour overnight shift for the fire department on Sunday nights and a 12-hour overnight shift for with the rescue squad Wednesday nights.

“I am a very active person,” he said. “It is hard for me to sit behind my computer all day. And if I am going to sit at my computer all day, at least I am going to do something interesting. I would much prefer to be out, actively moving.”

For Nixon, his day job and night job are both about helping people – either protecting his employer or helping people following an incident. But if you forced him to choose one job …

Nixon said he is weighing emergency response as a career. Noting that 80% of the calls to which Seminole Trial responds are medical calls, he has taken his emergency medical technician training and is now a newly “released EMT” at the fire department and the rescue squad, which means he can run calls on his own.

“I love it a lot, obviously, and it is not something I want to stop doing,” he said of emergency response. “As of now, my cybersecurity job is really, really good, and I am in the field to be in. I have a voice in my head that is saying, ‘You’re young and you can only be a firefighter for so long. If you want to do it, do it.’ I like living within my means, as long as I can run around the woods and go fly fishing or kayaking or hiking and mountain biking and I am living somewhere where I can do that.”

Nixon has applied for full-time career jobs at several fire departments around the country, but has not been accepted by any of them yet.

He said the Seminole Trail fire station is like a clubhouse where the volunteers wait between emergency calls.

Sean O’Connor poses next to fire vehicles

“My crew is mostly UVA students; there are some townies, and people who are older, experienced, some who have graduated, some who are doing their master’s and their doctorate program, and we’re like a family,” he said. “We’re friends – we play games, we go to dinner, we train together.

“It is a fun place to be, but I didn’t realize truly the gravity of what we are doing until I ran some really bad calls. And that kind of kicked me into gear, and I see it happening with my new members. We go on a bad call and it’s like, ‘We actually do things here. We don’t just hang out and run minor calls. This is something actually serious that I am doing.’ I go deep. And I have no regrets. It is one of the best decisions I have made in my life.”

On a recent Friday night, Jordan Althoff, a fourth-year kinesiology student who has gone through the fire academy, came back from a shopping trip to restock the kitchen, telling a tale about a man she encountered at Kroger. The whole table started discussing strange encounters they had had in grocery stores.

Althoff was planning to cook salmon for the firefighters’ dinner, and she was halfway through a question about the food preparation when an alarm went off – a call to aid someone suffering from a seizure. Half the people in the room evaporated, and the meal was delayed for two hours.   

Later, after a dinner of cheesesteak sandwiches, substituted for the salmon, several of the firefighters broke out laptops to complete reports, while others got engrossed in Perplexus Epic puzzles, in clear plastic globes, watching a silver-colored ball bearing roll around on tracks. After two minutes, Althoff groaned in disgust and put her puzzle back on the table. “I quit,” she said. Five minutes later, she was twisting it around again.

“She’s hooked,” Bozzone laughed. “Two o’clock in the morning and she’ll still be playing with that thing.”

“Each crew has its own culture,” said Nixon, who usually works Sundays and was filling in on a Friday night shift. “You build some closeness. Each one is different.”

Nixon is happy with his double life.

“I have a long way to go,” he said. “I have a lot to learn and I have learned a lot at this point in my life. I am doing what I want to be doing. I love it. Some nights I have something horrendous happen and I get back thinking, ‘I never want to do anything like that ever again. Why am I doing this?’ And then I go to bed and wake up the next morning and think, ‘OK, when can I go back and do it again?’”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications