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April 7, 2005

Driven to help others

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Apr 7, 2005

As a firefighter, RIT student takes on duties that few try

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(April 7, 2005) — Responding to a call of a gas leak, members of the West Brighton Fire Department recently raced out of their firehouse to investigate.

Dressed in their yellow turnout gear, several firefighters marched into an office building to check the situation. But Seth Terkhorn, a cadet who rode to the scene in the department's pumper, stayed alone outside in the parking lot, waiting for instructions.

This call was a false alarm, so the firefighters soon returned to their station.

Terkhorn, 20, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, is a rare commodity in the ranks of firefighting. He wears two hearings aids and considers himself hard of hearing. He uses sign language and speaks, and hopes his skills can ease communication when a deaf person — there are thousands locally — is in trouble.

"I want to help people," he said.

Terkhorn joined the Fire Department in September. Only a few accommodations have been needed to have him fit in.

"When it comes to training, you have to be more square at him," said Assistant Chief Dave Yantz, indicating the need to speak face to face.

One barrier that Terkhorn faces, however, is being allowed to fight structure fires. Fire departments usually follow guidelines established by the National Fire Protection Association. A person trained to go inside a burning building must pass a physical exam, which includes a hearing test.

"There's a concern about the person not being able to hear signals if a team member is in distress or they have to evacuate," said Carl Peterson, a staff member of NFPA. "Firefighting is stressful enough. While people might be physically able, strengthwise, to do it, we can't afford to have someone in there just to shadow the person to make sure they are safe."

Yantz agrees.

"If somebody is behind him, especially in a fire which is really loud, I'm not sure he'd hear someone yelling at him to get out," he said.

Still, there's plenty of work Terkhorn can do, from changing air bottles to helping set up ladders. And most of the work of a firefighter is to respond to vehicle accidents and medical calls.

When he arrived at RIT from Ironton, Ohio, Terkhorn attempted to join the Henrietta Fire Department, the department that covers the dormitories at RIT. But Henrietta only accepts firefighters who can go inside burning buildings and who pass the department's physical.

Then, he learned that a neighboring department, West Brighton, had earlier had an NTID student as a member, so Terkhorn filled out an application and was accepted as a firefighter who does not enter a burning building.

For the rest of a firefighter's duties, however, "I can do it if they teach me with face-to-face communication, no problem. ... If I don't understand, they explain it again. They respect me and let me try new stuff."

More than 150 calls later, Terkhorn has responded to emergencies at all hours. Just before he sleeps, he cranks up an audio alarm and puts a vibrating text pager in a pocket of his pajamas to alert him of a call.

"As long as he's able, he's usually there," Yantz said. "He's very, very enthusiastic, very willing to learn and do a lot of things."

Terkhorn this week had hoped to take a state course run by the county for firefighters. But finding a funding source for an interpreter for him has delayed that training so far.

Standing 6-foot 2-inches tall, Terkhorn was armed with training as an Eagle Scout and lifeguard with CPR certification when he joined the department.

And he's taught his fellow firefighters a few things about deaf culture. It's fine to tap him to get his attention because sometime he'll miss someone calling his name. That's better than having people yell to him, he said.

While at RIT, Terkhorn has been a member of RIT's ambulance corps, doing administrative work with reports rather than going out to emergencies. Of the 55 student members, he's the only NTID student, and often has an interpreter at membership meetings.

"He's been great as far as being willing to do anything he's asked to," said Tim Keady, associate director of RIT's Student Health Center. "He's really been a good student for us. It's obvious he's very caring and kind and he really wants to help others."

Terkhorn's major at RIT is computer-aided design, but he'd really like to become a full-time firefighter.

Sean Glenney, 34, of Greece, a former NTID student who is also hard of hearing, has been a volunteer firefighter for North Greece for 13 years.

His advice for Terkhorn: "Just keep trying everything you can do and don't give up."

Copyright 2005 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle