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From a classroom to a burning building in 20 minutes: IU professor serves community as firefighter

Feb 15, 2019

What started as a gig teaching Bloomington firefighters how to play the bagpipes quickly sparked Indiana University professor David McDonald’s interest in becoming a volunteer firefighter and EMT himself. He signed up for a volunteer course and pursued a second career outside the classroom. He now serves as a volunteer firefighter and part-time paid driver for the Bloomington Township Fire Department.

David McDonald stands in front of a firetruck.
David McDonald serves a shift at the Bloomington Township Fire Department.Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

With numerous hours of hard work to learn the skills and techniques of firefighting, McDonald said it took over a year and half to start working in the field. This was not an easy task for someone who already had a busy career.

McDonald has taught at IU for the past 11 years as an associate professor of ethnomusicology and chair of the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. He teaches classes including “Music in War, Music for Peace” and “Irish Music and Culture.” He has specialized interests in the Middle East and Ireland and focuses on music as a form of protest and activism.

His love for music stemmed from growing up in an Irish Catholic household. He says that he fell in love with Irish rebel songs at a young age and began to play the bagpipes as a way to explore his Irish heritage. He now performs at weddings, funerals and parades. He is often approached for lessons.

McDonald sits in a firetruck
Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University
The personal fulfillment that McDonald says he experiences from firefighting is what drives him to continue his two careers.Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

He often has to switch gears quickly from academia and music to firefighting. One of the first times McDonald remembers was when he got a page toward the end of a summer class about a fire at American Veterans Post 2000. He ended class early and responded to the page.

“As I stood on the roof of the AMVETS cutting holes for ventilation, it really hit me: 20 minutes ago I was teaching class, and now I’m on top of a burning building with a chainsaw,” McDonald said. “It was a crazy concept. That’s what it’s like for a volunteer firefighter. If you get a call, you go.”

Shifts from 12 hours overnight to a full 24 hours can be tough to recuperate from. Accidents could happen at any point of the night while McDonald is on the clock. He then will get off at 7 a.m. to go home, shower and come back to teach class at 9 a.m. after a long night of little to no sleep.

“Days after a long shift can be a little tough,” he said. “You have to be able to click over from being a firefighter to a professor really quickly.”

The personal fulfillment that McDonald feels from firefighting is what drives him to continue his two careers.

“With firefighting, I am face to face with people in situations where I know for a fact I am positively making a difference,” McDonald said. “We answer a lot of car wrecks and emergency medical situations, such as heart attacks and drug overdoses. It helps me to feel like I am making an impact, which isn’t always as immediately apparent as a professor.”

Now eight years and countless long nights of volunteer firefighting later, he says it’s the broader community he enjoys serving the most.

“I am a proud townie, and this is a way where I feel like I’m supporting the community,” McDonald said. “I love Bloomington.”

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