Our Seven-Minute Burn Time: Rethinking the Relationship Between Bennington and the Community

Photo by Brady '16

Photo by Brady '16

by Jessica Lucia Pacitio '15

I know you’ve heard it: “ Hey, did you know that they have a seven-minute burn time?” Whether it be from campus safety telling you not to smoke in your room, from an upperclassman trying to spook you when you first moved in, or something that has managed to sneak its way into conversation even though most of the people in the room had probably already heard it. One learns the phrase quickly if you live in a colonial house, an unofficial motto almost. Yet, how many students actually know what would happen during those seven minutes? Bennington, similar to many other small towns throughout the country, has no government-run fire department; Bennington county’s fire response consists of three all volunteer fire departments: Bennington County Fire Department, Bennington Rural Fire Department and North Bennington Fire Department. Each one has volunteers on-call 24/7 to respond to emergencies in their own jurisdiction but also to provide municipal aid for nearby firehouses and counties. Each department also has its own specialty training in addition to standard training; for example, the North Bennington Fire Department specializes in cold-water rescue, having both the equipment and trained volunteers to rescue someone who has fallen through the ice. The volunteer fire department is funded by a small portion taken from property taxes, but largely is run through community support.

Two students, Glennis Henderson and Scott Milliman filled me on what the fire department here is really like, and how it functions within the community. Henderson and Milliman decided to become volunteer firefighters as a way of getting involved with the community and stressed the importance of a good relationship between the fire department, the college and its students. Henderson explained, “ The fire department is important to the community because it is the community.” They described the North Bennington Fire Department as close-knit, with many generations of firefighters from each of its many families. The fire department is a huge part of the Bennington community, and the college and its students, whether they know it or not, rely upon it if there is ever an emergency. In fact, the North Bennington fire department receives the call before campus safety whenever the alarm goes off in Longmeadow or the Townhouse. Every year Bennington College hosts a firefighter appreciation dinner, but beyond that there seems to be a lack of relationship between the department and the college. Students want to break out of their Bennington bubble and the difficulty doesn’t seem to lie in a poor relationship between the town and the college, like the one many of us hear about that existed during the 80s, but a fundamental lack of a relationship on account of little accessibility through the college to information about local issues and where volunteer work is needed. Both Henderson and Milliman explained that they were welcomed to the firehouse without hesitation and the application was fairly simple: filling out a form at the firehouse and a small two-dollar fee. They attend training twice a month in addition to Monday night meetings. The department did not hesitate to invest time and money in their training even though they knew that they would only be able to volunteer a few years before graduating. When I asked what the volunteers reactions were to having Bennington students get involved, Milliman explained that they were nothing but enthusiastic, and were even intrigued about Bennington – asking if it was really as crazy as they had heard. While this couldn’t help but make us chuckle, this truly hones in on the problem that exists between the town and the college: there is a barrier. Bennington students should not be seen as some mystical creatures living up on a hill that occasionally come down to buy a coffee, sandwich or walk about. There needs to be tools present at the college so that students can begin to build this relationship without holding onto this imagined animosity. Scott and Glennis explained that they wished the college did more to spread awareness about how students could get involved in the community. But for now, interested students can simply call the firehouse, see where help is needed, or take the time to research other community needs. The North Bennington Fire department, a cornerstone of the community, is a great foundation for students to begin to build a relationship between the college and the town.