With the steady decline of volunteer firefighters across the nation, I would like to take this opportunity to share a positive story of how high school fire academies can make a difference in communities across North Carolina. My hope is to explain why it is important to keep recruiting new firefighters as well as keeping high school training programs for new firefighters strong and active.
Several years ago, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction partnered with the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal to allow firefighter certification classes to be taught in public high schools. Approved high schools hire a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor to lead these academies across the state. Students taking part in this program must pass the practical skills and written test requirements set by the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission to become certified. The classes have been divided up into three different groups, and it takes three semesters to cover all classes. With the exception of Fire Control, TIMS, and Haz Mat, all requirements are met for North Carolina Firefighter Certification. As a result of the growing interest in these classes, NC OEMS has joined forces to offer NC EMT certification. NC EMT certification must be taught by a NC EMT Instructor and takes two semesters for completion. To summarize this opportunity, high school students can graduate from high school with the majority of their North Carolina Firefighter Certification completed and ready to sit for the NC EMT certification test.
Making a Difference
As a fire chief in a rural community in Rockingham County, North Carolina, I am seeing these young men and women make a remarkable difference. The Volunteer Fire Department of Bethany, Inc. currently has a roster of 41 volunteer firefighters, seven additional part-time employees, and eight additional junior firefighters. Of the above listed members, 13 have been a part of the Rockingham County High School Public Safety Academy, and several of the junior members will begin that academy during the fall semester of 2019. In recent years the academy has seen several graduates attain career firefighter jobs, EMT careers, and part-time firefighter jobs. In addition, three have graduated from paramedic school, two are currently in paramedic school, and four are currently residents at fire stations.
On July 5 at 12:16 a.m., the Volunteer Fire Department of Bethany, Inc. along with several mutual aid fire departments was dispatched to a residential structure fire. Units arrived on scene to find a 550 sq. ft detached garage with flames through the roof only 14 feet from a 3,100 sq. ft occupied home in a non-hydrated neighborhood. I was the first firefighter on scene and assumed command. The first arriving engine arrived on scene with three personnel on the truck, and one additional firefighter in a personal operated vehicle (POV) behind them. These firefighters worked quickly and stretched two handlines. They began to flow water on the house to protect it and try to stop the fire from spreading. I was met in the yard by three teenagers who had called 911 and had alerted the home owners to get out of the house. After additional apparatus and personnel arrived on scene, the fire was put out and thankfully confined to the garage with minor damage to the home. The garage and the contents were a total loss, but the home was protected, and the residents were able to sleep the remainder of the night in their home.
All apparatus was cleaned up, and the firefighters headed back to their stations; it was at this time when I realized the direct impact the high school public safety program had on this incident. One of the three teenagers who had driven by and spotted this fire was a former student in the high school fire academy. He later credited the high school program for knowing what to do, being able to act quickly to call 911, and to alert the homeowners. All three of the firefighters on the first arriving engine and the firefighter in his POV had all recently graduated from the Rockingham County High School Public Safety Academy within the past three years. These firefighters have been interviewed by the local news station and have been honored by Congressman Mark Walker, but are very quick to let everyone know that they definitely didn’t fight this fire alone and couldn’t have done it without the help of all the firefighters on scene.
Reaching Today’s Youth
As the fire instructor for the Rockingham County High School Public Safety Academy, I am constantly trying to encourage my students to join a volunteer fire department or rescue squad. Over the past six years we have had nearly 90 students join volunteer departments. Obviously not all of these young men and women have stuck with it, but we greatly appreciate the ones who have. If your department is seeing interest from these students across the state, please give them the same attention and time that you would any new member. Walking up to the door step of a fire station and asking to come in can be very intimidating to a teenager. Our window of opportunity to keep their interest may not be as big as it is for others. As with any new member, they like to feel welcomed, involved, challenged and a part of the organization.