By Wendy Greenberg
With degrees in chemical engineering, and graduate study at Princeton University’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, Maximillian Nguyen thought that becoming a volunteer firefighter was out of his “normal wheelhouse.” But he considers himself “a resident of the town of Princeton and not just a University student,” so he decided to give back to the community in appreciation for enjoying what Princeton has to offer.
Nguyen is one of four Princeton University graduate students who recently became members of the Princeton Fire Department, and who continue a longstanding cooperative effort that has helped the municipal department supplement its ranks through the University’s staff and students’ desire to serve the community.
The four are the largest group of graduate students to join at one time, according to Princeton University. In addition to Nguyen, Johana De la Cruz, Jonathan Lowry, and Shua-Kym McLean, all graduate students in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, are among the 11 new members of the Princeton Fire Department who were sworn in on May 25. Nguyen is assigned to Princeton Engine Company No. 1; the others are assigned to Mercer Engine Company No. 3.
Deputy Chief Alex Ridings explained that a more formal associate member program allows University employees to volunteer from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. workdays, responding to emergencies on and off campus. (Employees can also join the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad.) Additionally, there has long been a volunteer base among undergraduate and graduate students. This was a challenge for the department during the pandemic when students left campus, Ridings noted, but the department is recruiting and rebuilding.
“Princeton University has taken an active approach to public safety by creating an environment that drives service from staff and students alike,” he said. “As a result, the Princeton Fire Department has benefited greatly from the contributions of the University population as they’ve volunteered their time, energy, and expertise in responding to emergencies in Princeton.”
Ridings cited a “huge decline” in volunteerism throughout the country. Daytime volunteers are scarce in Princeton, where many commute elsewhere to work, he noted. “We struggle at all times,” he said.
Nguyen, originally from Augusta, Ga., said he happened upon the fire department’s call for volunteers.
“It was actually just good advertising placement by the fire department,” he said. “I had seen one of these lawn advertisement signs over on Mercer Road by the Graduate College. It was inviting people to come learn about becoming a volunteer firefighter for the town, which sounded like an amazing opportunity, so I ended up following up on it.”
He had never thought about volunteering as a firefighter before. “I didn’t even know that you could volunteer as a firefighter,” he said. “I did not personally know any firefighters growing up, so I had always assumed the job was strictly career paid positions.”
Volunteers, who must be over age 18, must complete a 200-hour, state-mandated fire training. Nguyen said he learned a lot in the training, “from different types of fires you might have, different tools and equipment you might use, different strategies you might take to solve the problem. And then there’s all the things related to learning how to work together and cohesively as a unit in order to get jobs accomplished effectively.”
The volunteers are also trained in issues relating to CPR, bloodborne pathogens, and hazardous materials. “Constantly learning new things is actually just a general part of the job,” he said. “Ideally, you want to be practicing skills and techniques you’ve already been introduced too. But on top of that the department is constantly offering training in different specialties and new skills that you can learn.”
As a Ph.D. student, Nguyen will spend at least half a decade living in Princeton, “which is enough time to say that being a Princeton resident is a significant part of my identity,” he said. “I even have a New Jersey driver’s license to show it in writing.”
That is why, he said, he wants to serve the community.
In addition to 35 volunteers and 31 associate members, the department has six career firefighters hired in 2020. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States has been decreasing.
The Princeton Fire Department, which was organized in 1788, is seeking candidates to join its Class of 2023 training program. No prior experience is necessary. Volunteer opportunities are designed to adapt to one’s busy schedule with minimal disruption.
According to the department, “Now is the perfect time to join the Princeton Fire Department, receive free training, and be prepared to help protect your community.”