For many volunteer firefighters, balancing outside jobs, family and friends, and any additional extracurricular endeavors is often a struggle, but Lieutenant Devon Collins says it hasn’t been that complicated for him, and his family particularly understands. “It’s actually quite simple at the moment. My dad was an NYPD search and rescue scuba diver for 20 years,” Collins says, “so he and my mom are quite a bit more immune to the worrying that my friends parents likely feel knowing that their son voluntarily runs into burning buildings.” Even in spite of the hazards of his volunteer post, Collins counts himself lucky to be carrying on the family tradition of selfless service. In celebration of Fire Prevention Month, GOOD is partnering with Nest to share the personal stories of Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department in Breezy Point, New York. Here, we take a closer look into the life of Lieutenant Devon Collins; his firehouse, what motivated him to become a volunteer firefighter, and the daily struggles and triumphs of his profession.
Since high school, Collins knew he wanted to eventually work in an area that combined his interests in math, analytics, logic, and reasoning. “Basically, I wanted to solve puzzles on an industrial scale,” Collins says, who went on to major in economics and business management at Purdue University. Yet the desire to be a volunteer firefighter had also been floating around in his head, as the father of one of his best friends was a former fire chief, and would constantly encourage Collins to join when he was old enough. Already a Breezy Point lifeguard during his high school years, Collins saw firefighting as another way he could help protect his community. Attending college all the way in Indiana made it a little more difficult for Collins to fit in his training, but he dove into his courses when his schedule finally allowed. While the hands-on classes may be inherently more exciting—Collins loved his Primaries course where he used axes and saws to cut holes in roofs and scaled ladders into fifth floor windows—he emphasizes the importance of the smaller details as well, like memorizing exactly where all the tools and gear are on the fire truck. “It makes finding what you need much easier at a fire scene,” he says, “when everything gets hectic and every second counts.”
Though Collins is on the hunt for a job in the financial sector, the horrific disaster of Hurricane Sandy in late 2012 pushed Collins to consider his volunteer post as a launch pad to potentially something larger. “I had never even though about becoming a professional firefighter until after Hurricane Sandy,” he concedes, intent on taking the FDNY firefighter exam the next time it’s offered. The storm was particularly cruel to Breezy Point, causing immense destruction to the firehouse and the greater community. “Due to the extent of the damage to our homes, many firefighters, including myself, lived in the Point Breeze Fire Department firehouse full-time for awhile,” Collins says, remembering the incredible volume of calls and help needed post-Sandy. “It brought us all a lot closer, and the 24/7 exposure allowed me to learn more in those six months than I had in the previous five years.” The resilience and compassion of his fellow firefighters during the aftermath completely reaffirmed Collins’s dedication to firefighting.
But Collins concedes that his passion produces mixed feelings. “Despite a love for fighting fires, I’d greatly prefer it if there were a lot less of them,” he says. “Fortunately for firefighters and civilians, firematic education has come a long way in the last two decades.” Collins points to technological advancements—protective gear that can withstand upwards of 1,000-degree temperatures, for example—that have enabled firefighters to plunge closer to the fire origin, or go deeper in their search for victims.
And while smoke detectors are the most commonly touted fire prevention methods, which Collins stresses are incredibly important, he’s glad that fire education is being more ubiquitous among civilians to the point where homes are coming pre-installed with sprinkler systems. In the event of a fire in the house, inhabitants’ risk of dying is reduced by approximately 80 percent when sprinklers are in working order. Sprinkler systems also lessen fire damage by up to 97 percent. “Homeowners are realizing that having to repair a wet kitchen or laundry room is much more cost-effective than rebuilding an entire home,” Collins says. “So, while we cannot completely remove the possibility of a fire, we can certainly reduce the number of fire-related deaths down to almost zero.” Fire education is instrumental in this endeavor, he emphasizes. “The most important thing in any building or house is the people inside it.”