County course offers opportunity for hands-on experience
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
While many of their peers lounged at home or hung out at the mall this past weekend, a group of county teens took turns wrestling with hoses, matching wits with ladders, muscling hydrants into submission and battling heavy equipment – and fortunately for the public, they savored every second.
The 14 aspiring lifesavers participated in a Junior Firefighting Course the county sponsors twice a year for youth ages 14 to 17. Now held at the Public Safety Training Campus in South Coatesville, the 16-hour curriculum covers a variety of fire-safety topics and includes lots of hands-on experiences, such as the proper way to drain an often-stubborn hydrant before hooking it up to a power-packed hose.
“It’s critical that we as county taxpayers support and grow the junior programs at all fire companies,” said Peter Mango, public information officer for the Keystone Valley Fire Department. “We know that the majority of fire service in the county is by volunteers, and that, unfortunately, is a declining population.”
The more than 1.1 million firefighters in the United States – 69 percent of whom are volunteers – respond to a fire every 23 seconds, according to 2012 statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. County statistics show a decrease in the ranks of volunteer firefighters over the past 15 years of 17 percent.
According to county officials, programs like this past weekend’s are one way to reverse the trend. The county also runs a popular weeklong summer camp, said Amy Amer, who works in the county’s Department of Emergency Services. She said the camp combines training with field trips to places like the Philadelphia Airport, which boasts an impressive array of firefighting equipment.
By getting aspiring firefighters hooked at an earlier age, they are more likely to continue on to years of service, said Reenie McCormick, one of the county’s part-time instructors. By the time teens get to high school, they become involved in numerous activities and often can’t find time to volunteer, she said. “By getting them in middle school, fire service can become one of their activities,” she said.
Steve Miller, the lead instructor, who also serves as building inspector and fire marshal for Caln Township, said teaching the course is rewarding. “It’s nice to be able to pass on your years of experience to an appreciative audience,” he said.
The biggest downside? Keeping the kids awake during the required explanation of what they can and can’t do, based on the state’s Child Labor laws. “Firefighting is hands-on,” he said. “We have to cover the legal material, but the activities are the fun part.”
A.J. Pizzi, a Goshen firefighter who also works part time as a county instructor, said this past weekend’s crew of young people came from companies in West Grove, Twin Valley, Coatesville and Keystone Valley, the latter the result of a consolidation with the Parkesburg, Pomeroy and Atglen departments. The courses are available through all fire companies in the county. A handful of the recent class members attended it because of a family legacy of firefighting. Others had their interests piqued in various ways.
Jordan Gusler, 17, from Octorara High, said she got involved because her school now offers an elective program that focuses on law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medical services and emergency response services. She said she knew the teacher running it, and he suggested she give it a try. “I’m really happy he did,” she said. “I love it. I love the adrenalin. I love the challenge.”
Gusler, who’s also involved in competitive cheerleading, said one of the pleasures comes from the fact that not everyone believes females are up to the rigors of firefighting. “If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m just going to try harder and prove you wrong,” she said.
Deshon Jones, 17, a three-year firefighting volunteer who attends Coatesville Area Senior High, said he did not have relatives encouraging him to join a company; it just appealed to him. He said his mother was a bit surprised but gave him support.
A 17-year-old Avon Grove High student credited her mother’s nursing career with her participation. Hayleigh Hunter said she sometimes heard reports when her mother would do ride-alongs with first-responders. “I love it,” Hunter said of her training. “It’s awesome.”
And in a twist on the conventional sequence of events, Mango said it was the spark of his 15-year-old son Peter, also a participant in the weekend course, that prompted his return to firefighting after several decades in law enforcement. He said after repeated trips transporting his son back and forth to the firehouse, members asked: “Why don’t you just join?”
Mango said he had been a volunteer 35 years ago before he pursued a police career, and in June, he joined Keystone Valley and is eager to get others involved. He said there are many ways to help firefighting efforts that don’t require wielding bulky hoses or climbing steep ladders.
“Everyone has different skill sets,” he said. “Companies are always looking for people with administrative, financial or management abilities.” To find out what you can do to assist, visit http://www.helpfightfire.com.