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Practicing Compassion Every Day: Connor Barton '08 Finds Joy and Purpose as a Firefighter
Posted 03/01/2018 09:49AM

"In my profession, we're basically the only entity where we're allowed to go into people's homes and lives without a warrant. We're kicking down doors, and breaking into homes, and people are excited. They're happy to see us. And it's because they are probably experiencing one of the worst days of their lives, and we make it better."

This description illustrates what Connor Barton '08 loves most about being a firefighter: he gets to make an immediate, positive impact in people's lives. Although he didn't always know that firefighting was the right career path for him—he earned his BA in Asian Studies from Colorado College—he knew he needed to feel a sense of purpose and suspected he would be good under pressure. When the opportunity arose for a 24-hour ride along with his father's former college roommate, a firefighter in Long Beach, California, Connor jumped at it. And after it ended, he was sold.

However, getting hired as a firefighter isn't that simple. For every 10 to 20 people offered jobs, approximately 2,000 applicants must take a written exam, pass a physical-fitness test, and attend in-person interviews before they're ranked and placed on a hiring list. It took Connor two years to navigate the process, during which time he worked as ski patrol and earned firefighting certifications through Utah Valley University's Fire Academy. Ultimately, Unified Fire Authority hired him in September 2014 and he joined Station 117 in Taylorsville.

New firefighters spend their first three months in boot camp, followed by a six-month probation. Probationary firefighters receive the worst duties on scene and around the firehouse, such as cleaning toilets, and are subject to an array of pranks from their co-workers. Such behavior serves a purpose, though. "The pranks aren't just for fun," Connor explained. "They are an ego check for the new guys and a constant reminder from your fellow firefighters that, 'We could do without you at this point because you don't know your job yet.'"

Last December, after three years on the job, Connor was promoted to firefighter engineer: a specialist rank given to those who drive the fire trucks and oversee all the equipment on them. Station 117 is a Heavy Rescue station, so in addition to responding to fires, they answer specialized calls related to structural collapses, road rescues, or confined spaces. Over the course of a 48-hour shift—their non-traditional schedule is two days on, four days off—Connor estimated they answer an average of 20 to 25 calls.

Along with the tactical skills he's gained, Connor believes the job has made him a better person. "I practice compassion every day," Connor said. "For every one call when you help someone who genuinely needs it, you help three or four people who don't." He described a significant portion of their work as problem solving, and bringing sanity and reason to chaotic scenarios, adding, "We show up when people can't figure it out, whether it's a real emergency or not."

But since every call is different, "you have to keep your head on a swivel and not grow complacent," Connor said. He was tested last Fourth of July weekend when his engine company answered a call for an apartment fire in Midvale. The fire had more time to propagate than usual—other units in the area were already fighting a fire in Cottonwood Heights—and the first priority was rescuing residents trapped in a third-floor apartment. With their captain's help, Connor and his best friend Chance Fivas executed a tricky ladder deployment and successfully brought a man, woman, and their dog to safety. In the moment, Connor relied on his training, experience, and trust in his colleagues. "With every fire you go on, you get more clear headed," he said. "The tunnel vision starts to open up, and you can see the big picture, react to the situation, and remain calm."

For that heroic rescue, Connor and Chance received the Medal of Gallantry at the Unified Fire Authority's annual awards ceremony last September. Connor is nonchalant about the recognition, though. "It's cool to be honored," he said, "but there are so many other guys in the department who are equally deserving of an award." The way Connor sees it, he was simply doing his job.

When he's not doing his job, Connor spends time outdoors rock climbing, skiing, or fly-fishing. He also recently adopted a black Labrador Retriever puppy named Hank, whom he's teaching to hunt ducks. More often than not, Connor can be found with other off-duty firefighters from Station 117, whether they are pitching in to help someone with a landscaping project or simply hanging out. "There are a few professions where the term brotherhood gets tossed around, but it really is the case with us," Connor said. "I work with the best guys."

In fact, Connor would be happy to work with the guys at Station 117 for the rest of his career. While he has thoughts about one day becoming a captain within the department, he remains focused on becoming the best engineer possible, which he says will take years. "Every day, every shift, I learn something new."

Connor at Rowland Hall, Fall 2017

And every day, every shift, he gives something back too, including a safety presentation last fall to Isabelle Buhler's 4PreK class at Rowland Hall. Connor marveled at how sophisticated the youngest Rowland Hall students are, and while he hesitated to give advice—he wants young people to explore their options and ultimately find a career that aligns with their values—he expressed hope that some of the best and brightest of the next generation would go into jobs of service, whether in the military, or police or fire departments. "People in these jobs have a huge impact on others' lives—especially those lives at risk," Connor reflected. "Good people with strong educational backgrounds can improve the dynamics of these professions because they bring a broader view of the world with them."

Banner photo (L-R): Chance Fivas, Matt Ascarte, and Connor Barton at the 2017 UFA awards ceremony.

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