Alum First-Responders Lead and Serve on the Front Lines Every Day
Their education at Davidson taught them how to deal with the unexpected–and they’ve had plenty of that on the front lines of emergency response in the last two years as waves of pandemic swept the nation, wildfires imperiled the arid West and ever-more powerful hurricanes raked the Southeast.
A few graduates find themselves at the vanguard of catastrophe, working in fire service, medical response and even in the battle against global climate change.
While their career paths might not match those typically associated with Davidson grads, their brand of “leadership and service” distinguishes them during a particularly perilous era of recent history. Their work is a matter of life and death.
Here are some of their stories:
A medical career that began, literally, on the street
Nate Walcott took some detours on his way to medical school, one of them in an ambulance.
He worked as an emergency medical technician for a patient transport service near Philadelphia during COVID, working 12-hour shifts with a wide variety of cases.
Walcott had been interested in biology and science since high school. Ambulance work put him where he could indulge his curiosity.
“Because I was interested in medicine, one of my favorite things was talking to the nurses about the patients and their medical situations,” said Walcott, who graduated from Davidson in 2016 with a biology degree.
Working during COVID meant special reliance on precautions, including professional masking gear and rigorous sanitation. In his role as an EMT, he said he felt respected by the public, particularly during the lockdown.
His road to medical school at Wake Forest University got a hands-on boost during his study-abroad opportunity at Davidson when he went to Zambia in the summer of 2015.
There, in the rural town of Mwandi, pop. 8,000, he worked with doctors, nurses and clinicians at the United Church of Zambia Mission Hospital delivering public health care while gaining perspective at the intersection of religion, health and culture.
After Davidson, Walcott got a master’s degree in biomedical sciences at Wake Forest. Last fall, he started medical school there.
Lessons learned from his time at Davidson, Walcott said, have served him well in his pursuit of a medical career.
“You learn critical thinking, problem solving, how to approach things from other angles,” he said. “And, how to carry a heavy workload.”
A life of service, both above and beyond
Immediately after graduating in 1981, Svend Pedersen traded his mortarboard for ensign bars, heading into flight training with the U.S. Navy.
He rose to the rank of commander in his 25-year career that included more than 5,000 flight hours in electronic reconnaissance in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, executive officer of the Navy’s air station in Keflavik, Iceland, and a stint in the White House Military Office.
He landed in State College, Pennsylvania, for a second career at Penn State’s Athletic Department and as an administrator at the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences. That lasted 15 more years, with service in the Alpha Fire Company, which has served the region for more than a century (Penn State’s steam whistle doubled for the fire call beginning in the 1890s).
He’s still there, now as the largely-volunteer unit’s vice president and safety officer.
“I joined the fire company looking for a community similar to what I had while on active duty,” said Pedersen. “A mission that really mattered, a culture where your part in the mission mattered and was appreciated, strong camaraderie, and, to be honest, the opportunity to do things few people get to do.”
Pedersen also serves as an emergency medical technician and EMT instructor for Centre LifeLink, one of the region’s medic services. Some weeks he spends more than 70 hours attending to his responsibilities.
Departments that depend largely on volunteers were challenged even before the COVID pandemic. About 70 percent of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers, Pedersen said, and their numbers have been falling for years.
“Coupled with increased training and increased call volumes, volunteers are stressed,” Pedersen said. His department always attracts students from Penn State as volunteers, but his local force continues to grow older and rarely attracts young recruits. Budgets will have to grow to hire part time and career firefighters to cover vacancies in the very near future.
On the EMS side, where workers were often in contact with COVID patients, issues can be significant. “We have two local EMS companies that are often out of service, causing my company to cover,” Pedersen said, “with the result of a thin system being spread even thinner.”
But problem-solving is Pedersen’s job, and he credits a Davidson education for foundational skills.
“Defining priorities and time management are skills that started on campus,” he says. “Taking data, turning that data into information, and connecting that information to the whole was a capability that Davidson nurtures, and that was honed to a fine point in the Navy and now in my first-responder organizations.”
And Davidson’s Honor Code and peer expectations, he said, planted a navigation aid deep in his head: Figure out the right thing to do and get it done.
“While independently deployed with my aircrew on the other half of the globe, or making decisions on the fire ground or on scene in a patient’s home,” Pedersen said, “it all comes down to managing the gray between the black and white of orders, procedures, and protocols to come up with the best outcome.”
Rescuing a fragile world, from the ground up
When he wakes up and goes to work, Nicolas Cisneros knows his job is not to save the planet. His job is to help others do it.
He works through an international organization called the NDC Partnership to enable countries to meet their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, and thus help adjust the thermostat of a warming Earth. He manages efforts in seven Latin American countries–Peru, Honduras, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Paraguay.
Many countries, he said, have a willingness to tackle climate issues but also face endless economic and poverty challenges and have only limited means.
But the NDC Partnership connects them to resources and technical assistance from more than 200 members, like the World Bank and the United Nations, to help plan, implement and finance climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, including in green energy, sustainable agriculture and other planet-friendly initiatives. The NDC Partnership also has mechanisms to give a voice in the process to young people, indigenous groups, women and civil society.
In his previous work with the Pacific Alliance, comprising Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, for example, he advised on development of long-term green growth strategies that align with national priorities and worked with the private sector to make more environmentally friendly investments.
“We must assign a monetary value to nature,” said Cisneros, a 2009 economics graduate. “In the end, it’s a failure to do so that results in emissions levels.”
A native of Ecuador, Cisneros said he was drawn to Davidson for its academic rigor and broad curriculum. “I explored everything from studio art, to Zen Buddhism and econometrics.”
He concentrated on international studies and studied Chinese and French with an eye to a career in international investment banking. When the economy collapsed in 2008–the very day he was to start an internship at Charlotte-based Wachovia, its CEO left the bank–his career took an interesting turn toward global environmentalism.
Davidson had given him an appreciation for the complex interconnected dynamics of moving toward sustainable development, including its economic, political and social dimensions. He went on to get a master’s degree in international affairs from The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, where he launched into a career at the United Nations Environment Program focusing on green economy and trade.
He has a passion for teaching younger generations about the strategic political and economic importance of sustainability, having served as an adjunct lecturer at Wake Forest University, teaching international environmental policy, sustainable strategy and innovation, and behavioral economics and sustainability.
He knows the stakes involved in failing to reduce carbon emissions–more violent storms, raging wildfires, and other natural disasters that affect the world’s most vulnerable populations. He sees progress, but says much more must be done, best sooner than later. And he relishes that challenge.
“It’s been lovely,” Cisneros said, “to wake up and serve that greater good.”
Climbing the ladder to ever-more complicated challenges
Only days after Bo Fitzgerald was promoted to division chief at the Charlotte Fire Department, COVID-19 attacked the force. His first day in the new job, eight firefighters comprising two fire companies were sidelined by the pandemic.
“And it just got worse from there,” said Fitzgerald, a 1999 history graduate. And as quarantines rose, the city was soon swept with protests over the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis by police.
“So right out of the gate, we had two major events which would have a lasting impact not only on my profession, but on the entire nation.”
Charlotte lost a firefighter to the virus in 2021 and several department members have become seriously ill.
“It has also had a severe impact on our day-to-day jobs,” said Fitzgerald. “It has negatively impacted our staffing. It has added to our firefighters’ workload. And I have witnessed what I believe to be a significant impact on our mental health.”
As one of seven division chiefs in the nation’s 15th largest city, Fitzgerald supervises nine battalion chiefs, who together manage more than 300 captains and firefighters. While he still responds to major incidents on his watch, his days are largely consumed by critical administrative tasks, things like staffing to personnel issues.
He also coordinates special-event coverage, assigning firefighters and EMTs to cover Carolina Panthers NFL games, city festivals and other events.
“And I'll just go ahead and say it–none of this is as much fun as riding on a fire engine.”
Fitzgerald joined Davidson’s volunteer fire department as a student, and got hooked on the profession. He worked for six months as an emergency medical technician in Mecklenburg County and joined Charlotte Fire six months later.
Even then, on his days off, he continued to volunteer in Davidson, where his wife Adah ’01 runs one of the town’s most popular businesses, Main Street Books. Fitzgerald was appointed the part-time fire chief for Davidson in 2015 and he held the post for five years.
As a history major with a minor in religion, Fitzgerald followed an atypical post-graduate path.
“Although both degrees come in handy for dinner table conversations at the fire station every now and then, my field of study while at Davidson never really seemed to help much at fire scenes,” he said. But plenty he learned in his four years continues to pay off, like critical and independent thinking skills. And reflecting candidly on mistakes and turning those into positives.
“And the more I've progressed in my career, the more all of that stuff has mattered,” he said. “Not to mention the personal relationships from college that have been extremely influential over the years.”
Recognizing the complex dynamics of an urban safety net
David Farnum came to Davidson as a Bonner Scholar, a program with a significant service obligation. Farnum served much of that with the Davidson Fire Department, and he still remembers, nearly a quarter-century later, fighting his first fire. He was one of three Davidson students with two veterans dispatched to a burning mill house.
The first time someone goes into a fire, he said, they know whether it’s for them or not. “They know at that moment amidst the heat, smoke and controlled chaos,” said Farnum. And while his job has changed, it’s still about people.
“It’s about those we work with,” he said. “It’s about the citizens, providing excellent, equitable service.”
Now instead of responding to calls dozens of times a day as he did for years, “my job is to make sure that those I have the privilege of leading are trained and equipped to respond quickly and effectively.”
He is one of seven division chiefs in the Charlotte Fire Department (hold on to your helmet: yes, two at this high rank are Davidson grads). It’s a major urban department in one of America’s fastest-growing cities. It covers 316 square miles (nearly three times what the Atlanta Fire Rescue agency covers) with more than 250 people on duty a day. He goes to every major incident in the city of nearly 900,000.
While Farnum has seen an uptick in public appreciation for the work of first-responders during the pandemic, he wishes the public had a better understanding of the broader social challenges communities face.
He sees the city’s problems from a street-level view, and since COVID hit, he’s seen them magnified.
“Community resilience is fragile or fractured right now,” Farnum said. Gaps in Charlotte’s social safety net have grown wider.
“COVID has pushed a lot of people into crisis,” he said, such as fear of eviction after jobs are lost. “Problems are not necessarily managed in a comprehensive way, and the community need is so great. About 450 times a day we roll out to fires, EMS runs, technical rescues and hazardous materials incidents. We address that immediate, acute need. We solve a problem and take great pride in doing so.” But, he said, the more extensive, comprehensive challenge is one that continues to vex him.
As a manager in a complex organization, he draws on lessons he learned from Davidson.
Farnum is an English grad who, for a couple of years between operations roles, found himself leading his agency’s predictive analytics unit. An odd fit? Nope. An advantage.
Davidson taught him not to be intimidated by hard questions with no clear answers.
“My primary role in the department for a couple of years was to drive innovation and problem-solving, while maintaining focus on long-term strategy, making sure that senior leadership had the information it needed to make well-informed decisions by tying disparate information together,” he said. “Making some of those key decisions now, and managing complex conversations and discussions, speaking to the ‘why’ by answering difficult questions directly, it all ties back to what I originally found myself doing at Davidson.”
And it ultimately ties back to the people.
“Over the last few years, like many senior leaders, I’ve had what amounts to a pretty obvious realization–that one of the only ways to ensure the projects and processes I’ve been a part of continue are to move to staff advocacy, active succession planning and to be a mentor. This means trusting those I work with, developing and empowering them.”
Regarding the agency’s accreditation process, for instance, he has expanded what, historically, had been limited participation into comprehensive team projects, where each member contributes to the development of each part of every accreditation document. For these and other complex problems he sees on the job, Farnum said he places his faith in people–people who will take up the torch (or should we say the nozzle?) and walk it forward.
Rising to the biggest challenges in the mile-high city
Jordan Hauser’s typical to-do list at work can include unforeseen challenges:
SCUBA diving in a lake in the morning, dangling from a rope in the elevator shaft of a high-rise in the afternoon or scaling a three-story ladder to vent the roof of a burning building with a chainsaw at night. Once, he got summoned to the scene of a big drug raid by the FBI to pop open some safes.
Hauser is a member of the Denver Fire Department’s heavy-rescue unit, Rescue 1, a highly trained squad that responds to the most extreme emergencies in Colorado’s capital city. His team is trained in diving, swiftwater rescue, high-angle rope rescue, confined space rescue, structural collapse extraction, hazardous materials and industrial accidents.
“We are the department's Swiss Army knife,” said Hauser. Unit’s motto: “Anytime, Anyplace.”
After graduating in 2006 with a mathematics degree, Hauser worked for Mountain Khakis, an apparel brand founded by a fellow Davidson soccer alum, Ross Saldarini. Then he returned to his home state of Colorado and in 2011 survived the rigorous competition to be hired by Denver’s fire department. For the past six years, he’s been assigned to Rescue 1, where dull days are rare.
“On any given shift,” Hauser said, “there exists a high probability of seeing something you've never seen before or making a difference in somebody's day.”
Since the world-warping onset of COVID, Hauser has noticed a shift in the public’s appreciation of first responders–as well as other essential workers.
“That shift in perspective has been awesome to see,” he said. “Folks working in grocery stores, restaurants, driving buses, collecting trash, and other public-facing roles were sort of overlooked before–not because those jobs or people were any less important, but because as a society we took the availability of those services for granted. Then COVID threatened the security of the existence of many services.”
Math equations don’t come up much in his line of work these days, but Hauser said he draws constantly on what he learned as a Davidson student and on the college soccer team.
“As students, we have to be experts in a wide range of disciplines and as athletes we have to be physically capable of performing those disciplines successfully,” he said. “You can’t get where you are unless you’ve been where you’ve gone.”
- September 13, 2022
- Mark Washburn