The N.C. High School Fire Academy Concept Through the Eyes of a Recruit


CarolinaFireJournal - By Brittany Haigler
By Brittany Haigler
04/24/2015 -

Most would never think that having the opportunity to become a certified firefighter would be possible for a young teenager. Being a professional in such a prestigious career right out of high school is not something many get the chance to do. In North Carolina, however, there are currently 38 high schools that offer this opportunity to their students by establishing their own fire academies.

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I know there are some skeptics out there who find it hard to believe that such young teenagers can learn and train just like career firefighters. Honestly, it sounded a little crazy to me at first too. I never imagined myself bailing out of the second story window of a school onto a ladder at age 16. Although it was a little shaky, I did it; and so did every other recruit in these programs.

I get the chance to not only be a part of the model program in the state, Concord High School Fire Academy, but also to be the assistant chief of the whole program. With that title I feel a huge sense of honor, pride and responsibility. Although it doesn’t take a big title for any recruit across the state to feel the same way in their own program, Honor, Service, Pride, and Tradition are what these programs were founded on. Those are some of the most important things to include in a fire academy for it to be successful.

I was homeschooled until my sophomore year of high school. My reasoning for coming to public school was mostly due to the fire academy. The idea of public school wasn’t something that appealed to me, but after I heard about the fire academy and that Chief David Barlow was instructing there, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a part of it.

Public school was a huge change for me but one thing that made me feel comfortable was the family environment that Chief Barlow created in his fire classes. No matter how out of place I felt, I could always find a place in his class. The fire service is all about family and friends and that’s something I quickly learned in the fire academy. I made friends in that class that are like my family now because of the things we’ve done together and the things that Chief Barlow taught us. I honestly can’t say that about any other class I’ve taken in school.

When I first entered the program I was only a recruit. I blended in with everyone else because I never thought of myself as a good leader. With the help of Chief Barlow and my classmates, I soon learned that I am a much better leader than I ever thought I could be. Chief Barlow noticed and encouraged me to apply for an officer position, so I did. I became a battalion captain which was like the battalion chief’s assistant, in a way. From there, I was nominated by my classmates and voted as the next assistant chief of the whole program for the year to come. When my name was called as the new assistant chief on awards night, I couldn’t think of anything else that would bring me such honor and pride. I never even thought I had leadership potential but thanks to Chief Barlow and the other recruits I improved and accomplished something I never dreamed of before.

Soon after becoming assistant chief, I had the privilege of presenting alongside Chief Barlow and my other Assistant Chief of Operations, Colton Cline, at the State CTE Conference. It was the first experience I had had in an environment like that. I learned that there is much more to the fire academy than just going to class every day. It takes planning, resources, and many important people to make it happen.

Colton Cline and I walked around the building and soon realized how many people already knew of us even though we had never met them. We could overhear people saying things like, “There’s the legendary Concord High School Fire Academy.” We didn’t think so many people knew of us or looked at the things we do that are posted on our Facebook page.

Cline and I were amazed at how we were almost treated as adults when I was only a junior in high school and he a sophomore. People automatically respected us more because of our association with the fire academy and the things they had seen or heard us do.

Other instructors who were trying to get their own programs started were asking us how we became so successful. Anything from uniforms to structure and leadership was talked about that day. Everyone wanted to know how the Concord High School Fire Academy did it, and they wanted to know from us, the students.

We both went home that day with no doubt in our minds that we were, as Chief Barlow says, “under a microscope.” Everything we do in our school or community is watched by everyone who knows us. The other recruits and I are admired for the training we go through and the leadership skills that not only I, but also the whole academy portray. All of our recruits know this but still continue to stay humble because they know how lucky they are to have this program. It means more to them than fame or being recognized. To a recruit, this program is about working together, doing what needs to be done and being better than they were yesterday.

The fire academy has helped so many students reach their full potential and realize what they can really do. The recruits of the fire academy don’t just focus on what it can do for them; they look at what they can do for it. We get a lot out of this program and only want to return what we’ve gained. We, as the recruits have learned that the best way to do that is to train harder every day so only our best is given back to the academy and the community.

I know there are some skeptics out there who find it hard to believe that such young teenagers can learn and train just like career firefighters. Honestly, it sounded a little crazy to me at first too. I never imagined myself bailing out of the second story window of a school onto a ladder at age 16. Although it was a little shaky, I did it; and so did every other recruit in these programs. The instructors strive to make everything we do as realistic and scenario-based as possible. They usually succeed with the help of many props and some creative thinking.

It takes a lot of equipment and props to get the proper training we need. Chief Barlow works very hard every day to acquire those things for the academy. Concord High School Fire Academy has a fully equipped Engine Company with forcible entry tools, ventilation tools, fire hose, high-rise packs, two 14 foot ladders, a 24 foot ladder, one 35 foot ladder, chain saws and a K-12 saw. We also have a Rescue Company with a full set of rescue equipment, cribbing and cascade system. We use this equipment regularly throughout the classes.

Training is the most important thing about becoming a firefighter. As a firefighter, you never stop learning new things or possibly a better way
to accomplish something that was already taught. We strive to improve every day by doing things such as: blind folded search and rescue, bailouts, ventilation (using props), scramble drills, firefighter down CPR, hot bottle swaps, ladder raises, rapid dress and many other things.

We are currently building a smoke house for more realistic training in the future. The fire academy is also working on things like entanglement props, Denver Drill, forcible entry and sprinkler props. We hope to be finished with the building of these by the end of April.

Construction and improvement of our training facility would not be possible without the hard work of the recruits and the help of several donors including the Concord Fire Department.

Concord High School also has an EMT Academy that allows students to prepare and study to take the state EMT certification test by the time they turn 18. This class is taught by Chief Earl Motsinger. It includes all the basic medical practices of an EMT-basic. Several students have more of an interest in becoming an EMT rather than a firefighter.

The EMT Academy has a fully equipped ambulance and many items necessary for life safety. The students take every opportunity to study and learn more about saving lives. This class allows them to achieve their dream careers as well. Our program will be adding the law enforcement component in the fall of this year to become a full Public Safety Academy.

High school fire academies have been very successful in the past five years. They have helped create many volunteer and career firefighters and military careers for students who graduated the program. Even if recruits did not pursue a career in public safety, the program still had a huge impact on their lives.

From this program, recruits have learned so much about brotherhood, teamwork, leadership, and even themselves. I’ve seen people get competitive to break records and achieve personal goals. I’ve seen people overcome fears and look out for each other. Witnessing things like that is one of the best feelings of pride and honor there is. Being Assistant Chief and helping to make it all happen makes me proud of myself and the other recruits.

The future has even more to offer for high school fire academies. More training, better training facilities, and more dedicated recruits will continue to make this program thrive. None of it is possible without great instructors and support from those who believe in the program. At this rate we’re only going up from here. As we continue to grow these programs I believe that this will contribute significantly to the future of the American fire service.

Brittany Haigler is the Assistant Chief of Administration at Concord High School Fire Academy. Learn more about the program at www.chsfireacademy.blogspot.com.
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