The life of a student firefighter

Courtesy photo

Castleton student Rebecca Sardaro poses in her
firefighting gear with brother.

She always has her pager on hand, even in classes, just in case she gets a call. It’s her lifeline.

Suddenly, it went off. She waited a moment to see what the call was for.

“It’s just a practice call,” she said with a laugh.

As a third generation firefighter, firefighting has always been a part of Rebecca Sardaro’s life. She officially became a part of the firefighting world five years ago, when she was just 14, at her local fire department in Milan, N.Y.

And firefighting is such a key part of her life, she immediately joined the Castleton Fire Department after enrolling at Castleton University.

Now she’s one of the crew here too.

“Before the actual meeting, we kind of stand there and bullshit around; it’s a nice community builder,” said Sardaro.

Heather Ducharme, who has been a part of the Castleton department for two years now, describes Sardaro lovingly saying “She’s a pain in the butt.”

“We’re kind of like a big family here,” said Ducharme, as she became distracted by the crazy commotion of some of the men firefighters in a hilarious little brawl nearby.  

And how is Sardaro in the field?

“She is definitely one to jump in and help,” says Ducharme. “When she’s here, she’s focused on whatever is on hand.”

The most memorable call for Sardaro was a terrible car accident that took one of her classmates in high school.

“I knew him really well. I actually keep his card from his wake on my desk,” Sardaro said sadly, pointing at the card. She credits him with pushing her to become valedictorian, simply because he didn’t like her rival. “Thinking of him reminds me to keep pushing because he’s not here to do it.”

How does she handle all the negativity that comes with the job?

“I try to make it as positive as possible,” said Sardaro. “Nothing is ever going to be easy. You have to take the good with the bad and make it as good as possible.”

But why does she do it?

 “I love it. It’s an adrenaline high,” she said of her firefighting life. “Just being able to help someone else is why I do it.”

Sardaro has an axe with the word “courage” tattooed on her forearm. It fits her perfectly, as if it was meant to be a part of her.

 “It means a lot to me because it’s my first tattoo,” said Sardaro. “It means fighting through, to keep going even though it’s tough.”

Firefighting has had an enormous impact on Sardaro’s life and who she is as a person. Shelby Tourangeau, a good friend of Sardaro’s, agrees.

 “I think being on the fire department has helped shape who she is and has made her the strong-willed person she is today,” said Tourangeau.

Sardaro’s support system largely consists of friends and family, although it can be difficult because family is a long way away.

“My dad is my go-to,” said Sardaro. “My family helps keep me grounded. I miss them a lot. It’s also hard being away from my boys at the fire department back home, but they make up for it by ragging on me when I’m home.”

There’s a special bond within the fire department, she said. There has to be faith in each and every member.

“You have to trust every member with your life,” Sardaro said with a stern look.

Sardaro sits there, clearly missing her biological family, as well as her firefighting family, back home. She said her “family is easily the most important thing in my life.”

Sardaro recently got a second tattoo, for her dad, that says ‘Because sometimes you win.’

“It’s ironic because he actually isn’t fond of my tattoos,” Sardaro said with another hearty laugh.

In an e-mail interview, Al Sardaro, her father, almost immediately commented on her tattoos. “I don’t care for her tattoos, even though the second one was for me, which is kinda weird,” he said. “I may not always agree with the things she does, but I will always love her.”

And he loves that she loves the firefighting world. He talked about the father-daughter bond that has only been made stronger through their mutual love to help people.

“I think firefighting has made Becca and I a lot closer,” he said. “It has given us common ground and experiences.”

But that father-daughter closeness can be hard for mom, they said.

“My mom gave me a hard time when I came to school because I had tons of photos with my dad, my dog, with friends and even my brother. I even had a framed photo of a fire truck,” said Sardaro. “But I only had a little picture of her.”

Between firefighting, friends, family and school, there’s a lot going on. So what are her favorite memories?

“I would say a lot of my happiest times were with my family, laughing at a bonfire, and making s’mores or at fire department picnics with all the boys,” she said fondly, smiling.

On the surface, she seems to have it all. She graduated from high school as valedictorian, she’s an honors student, a biology major on her way to becoming a doctor, a certified EMT, a volunteer firefighter and has a loving family. She also recently received a job as an ER scribe.

But life isn’t always rosy. Despite these respectable accomplishments, Sardaro finds that she often deals with depression and anxiety. As a result, she tends to eat less than she should, sometimes only once a day.

“My family and friends bitch about it,” said Sardaro as she ironically began to eat some trail mix.

How does she handle it all the work and stress?

“I do homework and try not to cry,” she joked, before becoming a tad more serious. “I simply try to balance everything.”  

Sometimes all she needs is someone to talk to be able to get everything in perspective.

“My favorite memories with her are our bitch sessions,” says Tourangeau. “They really help when we’re stressed or just need to talk and they’re usually amusing too.”

Sardaro also finds that simply being around her firefighting family when things become almost too much to bear is beneficial as well.

“Being around the guys reminds me I’m not a robot,” Sardaro said.

 “My life seems to be falling apart due to stress, but I’m strangely happy,” said Sardaro, chuckling, seemingly resigned to the fact that she doesn’t understand it either. “I simply try to look for the best in every situation.”

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