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In the classroom or at the station house, these NMSU students are at the ready

College professors could most likely compose a very large tome on excuses students have delivered over the years for missing classes or labs. At New Mexico State University, however, "I had to put out a fire" is a very legitimate excuse for 14 Aggies.

New Mexico State University Fire Department Cpt. Jose Mendoza briefs NMSU firefighters at the beginning of their shift. (Photo by Mark Cramer)

The NMSU Fire Department is one of the few nationwide with a force made up of full-time college students. Aside from Chief Darrell Smith, three captains and an administrative assistant, the department employs two seven-person shifts of students with varying majors and credit hours under their belt. They must pass an interview, exam and training - the same training any firefighter receives - to get the job, and they're paid for their work.

While the money certainly helps, students that pursue positions look for more than that.

For Carlo Franco, a sophomore majoring in biology and microbiology who spent five years in Navy Special Forces prior to entering college, the job is "great and phenomenal."

Firefighting at NMSU "gives me a chance to give back to my state and my community, as far as being a better person and being able to help those who are in need," he said. "It's extremely unique. It's a very rare opportunity for students to represent not only their campus, but also their city, as a fire department. We have to represent ourselves as professionals and conduct ourselves in the best manner possible at all times - at school and at work."

The department even has an international flair. Justus Chepsongal, a junior from Kenya majoring in biochemistry and microbiology, has seen firsthand the importance of a highly functioning fire department.

"In Kenya we have a lot of fires and we don't have a good response like fire departments [in the United States]," said Chepsongal, who has been with the NMSUFD since December 2009. "Most of the houses that catch fire lose everything; the houses burn down."

The job isn't for everyone, and it's certainly different from most other on-campus employment opportunities for students. For starters, it's a full-time gig. The force is broken into two shifts, and each shift spends every other night (5 p.m. to 8 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. Friday to 10 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. Sunday to 8 a.m. Monday) at the station house on Wells Street, across from the intramural fields.

"It's definitely challenging - we're more at work than we are at home. I see more of them [firefighters] than I see my family," Franco said.

"These guys that I work with are kind of like my family," Chepsongal said. "You're with them 65 hours a week, more than 2/3 of the week."

Aside from staying on top of training, keeping the firehouse clean and performing checkouts - checking all the equipment in the trucks to ensure everything is in full operating condition - there are, of course, calls to handle. The Fire Department estimates it responds to more than 1,100 calls for emergency services annually. And the NMSU Fire Department is more than a campus amenity - it serves as the home base of Dona Ana County's third fire district.

"We not only supply the campus with calls, but we also help the city and the county with their calls too when asked," Franco said.

The students take a great deal of pride in their station, and take their work very seriously.

"The only thing I knew a fire department did was put out fires," said Chepsongal of his scope of knowledge of firefighting before joining the NMSUFD. "After working here for a while I've done a lot of stuff - EMS, putting out fires, unlocking people's vehicles. We're here for everything, pretty much anything when people have problems."