KINGSTON, R.I. — Food can always be a good way to bond and that’s the idea at the Kingston Fire Department.
Charles Hall, president of the Kingston Volunteer Fire Company, has cooked up the idea of providing dinner a few times a week for both the new probationary members as well as those already serving this small community of 8,000 and the nearby sprawling University of Rhode Island.
Nestled away on Bills Road, the firehouse is in the shadow of URI and has about several current and former URI students who staff the station around the clock, with most current students.
“It’s my way — our way — of getting people to know each other and learn from each other and develop a tight bond,” said Hall. The station with several modern fire trucks and other vehicles depends on that enthusiasm to keep staff on duty shifts so that the station always has firefighters to answer a call.
This year there’s a healthy number of probationary firefighters, affectionately called “probies,” including URI freshmen Lynn Sawyer of South Windsor, CT, and Christian Dame of Attleboro, MA.
While trying out to be accepted as permanent members, they are enjoying Hall’s cooking while away from home, getting mentored and expanding their college learning well beyond the classroom.
“Charles is cooking tonight, do you want me to drive you to the firehouse,” Sawyer said other student firefighters will say to her. She lives on campus, but most others staffing the station also live in it for quicker responses — and as a way to help reduce their college living expenses.
In exchange for their duty shifts once or more times a week, along with training drills, they get a place to live at no cost. And Charles’s home-cooked meals on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
To make the menu easy to find, Hall, a URI assistant director of technology, uses social media to post what’s coming from the fire station’s kitchen.
“The duty crew enjoyed a Valentine’s Day meal of my now-famous Loaded Potato Buffalo Chicken Bake,” he wrote recently. It drew the reply from a fan, “Hopefully someone is cooking for you on your birthday tomorrow.”
As a chef trying to please his diners — whose meals once were just unhealthy fast-food until Belmont market a few miles away became the go-to place for better grub — he scours far and wide for recipes.
“Tonight I brought Sunday to Thursday,” he wrote. “The duty crew enjoyed Sunday Sauce from The New York Times.”
Each comes with enticing pictures with the clear aim to attract his firefighters to eat at the station when off duty as well. The pictures could easily replace those in Gourmet magazine where the imagination takes off with taste and smell. It’s all part of the draw.
“Thank you,” he wrote to one firefighter, “for requesting tonight’s meat choice of Chicken Parmesan.” Red tomato sauce covering spaghetti with drops of melted cheese on top with a nearby salad mixed with greens and carrots. The picture is worth a thousand words to his followers.
“Everything is good. It’s a great variety,” said Dame, who is working to pass his probationary status, during a recent interview at the station after a training drill one Sunday morning.
He and nearly 10 others similarly trying out hear the stories about fires long extinguished, meet and talk to those older and more experienced who dispense wisdom and safety precautions and develop a sense of friendship and bonding.
It is that important bonding on the day when they may rush into a burning building, know from drills what equipment to use and how to use it, and instinctively know their colleague is behind them and has their back on a hose line or at the panel of the truck.
These are the real lessons learned at the dinner table, said Wall and experienced firefighters like Mark Sapolsky, 21, a URI junior majoring in history. “There’s a really big camaraderie part of it. You get a real sense of a connection,” Sapolsky, added.
“When you are sitting around that table some of those barriers by age and experience give way to knowing you’re all in it together,” Wall said.
If going to college or a university is about learning, these students working as the first line of firefighters who would arrive at a house fire in that small community or a major structure fire at URI are getting a big lesson about life.
The dinners have helped to set the table, so to speak, for that understanding that comes from experience, not a book or in a university lecture hall.
“We have the potential to actually impact people’s lives,” said Dame. “There will always be a risk, but the reward is pulling someone out of a fire. You’ve made their life better.”
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