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MU alum gets most from service profession

Service-related jobs can be exciting.

Just ask Ben Martin.

The 2008 Manchester University graduate and former Spartans cross country and track and field runner used his service-based learning and parlayed it into an eventual position as a hot shot forest firefighter. The hot shot crew is utilized when fires grow very large very quickly, or if fires are in steep, inaccessible terrain, according to the Myersville, Maryland native.

“I’m in my second year on the hot shot crew,” he said. “I had been on an initial attack crew for the Okanogan-Wenatchee national forest, which is a regional resource, two years prior.

“The training never ends,” he added. “When the winter season is on, we are going through class work or doing physical training including hiking and running. My distance running experience from college has been a big help in my physical shape (for the job).”

Martin and his crew have been in Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Arizona during his current stint. His blueprint towards becoming a hot shot firefighter started right after he left North Manchester.

“I joined the AmeriCorps and was assigned to the Washington state Conservation Corps,” he reflected. “The majority of our work was riparian restoration.   I think our five-person crew planted over 500,000 trees and shrubs over the course of that year.  Part of the program included several trainings each year.  One of the options was the basic classwork for wild land firefighting. Our crew boss had been a wild firefighter for several years and all summer he would tell fire stories … the more I heard the more convinced I became that wild land fire was where I belonged.  

 “I was able to get on a crew for the forest itself,” he added. “Due to the strong work I showed (while on the crew), my supervisor submitted my name as a candidate. The initial attack crew I worked on was essentially a farm system for the shot crew. Very few folks from Americorps went on to become firefighters.”

While Martin loves what he does, he admits the long days are the hardest parts.

“The constant separation from loved ones wears on you the most,” he admitted.” We are on the road the better part of six months of the year with assignments ranging throughout the west.  It is incredibly difficult to know family and other loved ones are wondering where you are and if you're safe and not be able to reassure them and tell them you love them as often as you'd like.

Martin noted a typical day on assignment begins at 6:00 a.m. with “everyone's alarm going off simultaneously.”

“I know, from experience, you don’t want to be that guy that sets his watch ahead and cheats everyone else out of that last two minutes of sleep,” he said. “The repercussions will be swift and severe.  By 6:05, sleeping bags are stowed, the crew is dressed and filing to breakfast.  Morning duties like procuring water and general cleaning follow while the supervisor and foreman attend morning briefing.  The overhead then returns and briefs the crew, and we head out to the line.  Assignments could include constructing fire line- cutting out all shrubs and trees in a 10-20 foot swath with chainsaws followed by digging an 18-inch trail down to mineral soil.  The hotshot favorite is burning out, which entails using torches filled with a gas/diesel mix to set fire to fuel between a hand line or road or river, etc. and the main fire.  The objective of both these operations is to rob the fire of available fuel and thus cease combustion.  After the main body fire has passed, operations switch to mop up which entails gridding through the burned area and digging up/extinguishing any lingering sources of flame, heat or anything else that could flare up and throw embers across the line into unburnt fuel.  This is the dirtiest, least glorious, most time consuming work we do, and most firefighters loathe it, but at the same time is responsible for a good portion of our overtime hours.  Normally operations cease around 8-9 p.m. for a ride back to camp, a quick supper and swift decent into unconsciousness at 10 p.m.  However, it is not uncommon if conditions require to stay on the line for 24 or 36 hours until work is complete or adequate replacement resources arrive.  A typical assignment or "roll" lasts 14 straight days, followed by travel to home base and 48 hours off.  Generally, at the conclusion of the 48 hours, there is another assignment waiting and the process begins again.”

That’s not the only way Martin is involved service-wise, either. On top of his hot shot job, he is also an emergency medical technician.

“When the firefighting season slows down and in the off months, that’s my ‘other’ job,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve always wanted to be able to help people. I can’t think of two areas that are more suited. My EMT work also pays off as it’s among my roles on the hot shot crew, too. As a good friend said, engage head, hands and heart- with a healthy dose of adrenaline stirred in as well.  There is nowhere else I'd rather be, and nothing I've ever done has felt so right.”