This article is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.
With an undergraduate enrollment of more than 4,500 nestled in a town of just under 9,000, Dartmouth students have a profound impact on local emergency services. The College’s tax on limited resources becomes especially clear during celebratory weekends, as increased drinking and dangerous rituals place a strain on emergency services. The Dartmouth sat down with Hanover fire department chief Martin McMillan to discuss campus safety and shifting dynamics between the town and College.
In what ways do calls from the College differ from those beyond campus? Are there any calls unique to college campuses?
MM: I put calls from the College in two categories. There are automatic alarms, for some type of either malfunction or a causation that trips us — and that might be somebody burnt some popcorn. So not all of them are caused by a system malfunction, but may actually have a cause where there was actually smoke created. That’s a significant number of our calls over to the College — alarm activations, whether malfunctions or something real, or a fire once in a blue moon. Then the other half is medical conditions, and a lot of those are related to alcohol or drugs.
Do you typically see an increased volume of calls during big weekends like Homecoming?
MM: Historically, that has been the case. It seems to have tapered off the last few years. I think we started to taper off maybe about five years ago, some of it COVID-19 related, obviously. And we’ve had a lot of conversations with the Greek life people of just tampering down a little bit.
There are only a handful of ambulances in the Upper Valley. How does College activity — particularly during a weekend like Homecoming — impact the Hanover Fire Department’s resources?
MM: What we worry about is if we’re transporting lots of intoxicated kids up to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, then they get inundated up there, and they’re a very busy hospital for the most part. So now all of a sudden they take 15 or 20 people up there and they have to, for lack of a better term, keep an eye on them — babysit, basically. That just really is an unhealthy situation when they’re slammed. And the flip side of that is we’re taking ambulances. And then if all of a sudden somebody else has a severe issue, a cardiac event, a very serious stroke, a car accident or something like that, we have a big delay in treating them.
It’s not like we run around with big sticks slapping people on the hands for drinking. If you’re going to do it, do it responsibly — and if you exceed the limits, so to speak, we’re there for you. We want you to call. We don’t want somebody to die on campus of alcohol poisoning. But we’re trying to send that message out: If at all possible, don’t put us in that situation. Don’t give us 10 kids in an hour from a party where people are just hammered. Because it just overwhelms the system.
In a similar vein, do you believe it’s fair for college students to monopolize resources after drinking?
MM: I think they just need to understand — and we’ve tried to get that message out all the time, and that’s not just for the big weekends, that’s any weekend — to just be aware that you’re really taxing the system when we get more than a couple calls. It’s an educational thing — and we try to push that out there, especially to the Greek life representatives, when we’re meeting with them.
Beyond meeting with Greek life representatives, what other steps have been taken to ameliorate resource shortages? What steps might be taken in the future?
MM: We’ve chatted with the administration over at the College and have explained this situation about limited resources and what that does on any weekend, whether it’s a big weekend or not. And I think they’ve done a great job of trying to get that message out and kind of reel it back in a little bit. We greatly appreciate it. We’ve got a good partnership with the College.
How would you describe the dynamic between the town and the College? Is there any animosity among community members?
MM: I’m sure there’s some animosity out there. I understand this whole game. My son recently graduated, a few years back, from Villanova. I still remember my college days. We get it. All we’re trying to do from our perspective — whether it’s alcohol use or whatever the game is out there — is to say to students, ‘We just want you safe.’ All my staff, for the most part, have kids. We want that college environment to be positive for our kids and that experience — you’ll remember that for the rest of your life. Nobody wants that phone call in the middle of the night that something happened to your child. That’s where our mindset is — to all the parents that have their students here in our town, going to Dartmouth: We want them to enjoy their college environment and have fun. And it’s our job to try to keep them as safe as you can on some of these big events.
How have the dynamics between the town and College changed in recent years?
MM: I think there was a little bit of animosity when I got here and prior, and a lot of it was just this overtaxation of our resources. But I think the College has been a great partner, and I think they understand where we are coming from. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that, for their staff.
The college environment is very unique because of the whole administration, you have so many people. It’s a lot of committees making decisions in large groups. In our business, it’s a single entity where one or two of us are making decisions — and we have to make snap decisions. So there’s this whole thing about how fast you get things done, but we pull up, we have an emergency, we get on a truck, we go lights and siren, we hop off and we gotta gotta fix it.
And this level of frustration comes a lot of times when you’re trying to get something done, and you’re working with a large group of people that have lots of different viewpoints. But ultimately what I have always said is, if we were to hurt somebody or kill somebody as a result of one of these big events, I’ve got CNN or 10 different news organizations with a camera who’s staring in my face. They talk to me — I’m the fire chief — or they want to talk to the town manager or the police chief. And Dartmouth has a spokesperson, but a lot of people that make the decisions aren’t in front of the camera.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.