MEXICO – by Jon Longley students train as if their lives depended on it.
One day, it could very well be the difference between life and death.
Twice a week, a dozen high school students from Oxford County study fire science at the Region 9 School of Applied Technology. In the morning, they pull out textbooks and learn firefighting theory, essential for making informed decisions in the field. Yet at 10 a.m., students don their gear, ready to put theory into practice.
On any day, students can “rescue” weighted mannequins from a smoky trailer, a task made more difficult by the spring-loaded trapdoors that teach students how to test the strength of the ground. On other days, they can be found putting out fires or practicing proper techniques for rescuing people from multi-story structures.
“They have to do the exact same things (as) the adults who do the adult academy,” Longley said. “There are no exceptions.”
And when the need arises, Longley and his students drop everything to help out in an emergency.
At a time when recruiting and retaining firefighters has become increasingly difficult, officials believe high school fire science programs like the one in Region 9 are part of the solution. Maine’s fire department personnel are aging and when long-serving members retire there are often few, if any, young people with the training to fill their boots. In some cases, departments have merged or closed due to a lack of members.
“Nowadays volunteering has gone down dramatically,” said Greenwood Fire Chief Ken Cole. “It’s very difficult to find someone who has extra time in their life, career, study program, whatever and who balances that with family time, who has time to dedicate or give to a fire or emergency rescue service.”
Nine vocational and technical high schools offer firefighting programs in Maine, including Foster Career and Technical Education Center in Farmington and Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville.
At least one program in the state has closed recently due to a lack of student interest, said Jim Graves, director of the Maine Fire Service Institute.
Few high school students realize they can stay in Maine and earn $60,000 a year as full-time firefighters, which the state desperately needs, he added.
Most students in Longley’s program are not yet old enough to tackle the fires head-on. They support their fire departments as junior members, participating in the less risky “cold zone” operations at the scene. But once they turn 18, his students are ready to take the firefighter certification exams and become full members of their service.
“I always joke that firefighters and firefighters were an endangered species and headed toward extinction,” said Longley, the former Paris fire chief. “It’s just because we don’t get young blood in there.”
“As a fire chief, I immediately understood the value of this program,” he added. Many students graduate from Region 9 Firefighting I and II, which can take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars.
This is time and money that local services do not need to spend on new recruits.
One-third of Greenwood’s 15-member roll call are former or current Area 9 students.
“I believe a firefighter has to learn by doing, and that’s what they do there,” Cole said. “I know there are programs where you can read it in the manual, read the book, do it online and I deeply believe that if you want to be a safe and competent firefighter you have to learn a lot of things through practice (training) and experience only.
SERVE AND LEARN
When the Gammon Sawmill in Woodstock caught fire on the morning of Nov. 9, 2021, Longley and his students rushed to help.
On-the-job learning is as much a part of Region 9’s training program as manuals and hands-on exercises.
Most of the students were tasked with keeping the wood fire from spreading, while protecting nearby buildings and equipment, Longley said. Others helped provide water and remove debris from the factory’s sheet metal roof to put out the hot embers, according to David Goodwin, a junior firefighter from Greenwood.
While the sawmill was a total loss, firefighters on site were able to prevent the fire from consuming the family home.
“My favorite part is that we can still serve our community while learning as we go,” Goodwin said. “With staffing issues across all departments, we need all the help we can get, whatever the call.”
If they hadn’t been able to leave the school to answer the call, there would have been far fewer hands on hand to help, he added. Daytime fires are particularly challenging for volunteer firefighters, as many people work away from home during the day and few are able to respond to emergency calls.
This hands-on approach to training young firefighters is key, Longley said. He saw junior members come and go from certain departments because they weren’t able to participate directly in appeals.
“What was happening was a lot of young people were giving up because they were basically washing fire trucks,” he said. “They rode the pipe, they came after the event was completely toned down and safe, or as safe as possible, and that’s not what these young people want. They want to be like the guy next to them, or the girl next to them, doing the work.
A DIFFERENT EDUCATION
Region 9 fire science students say they don’t feel like they’re in school. They really appreciate the hands-on approach to the program and the tight-knit community, where each member gets a cherished nickname.
“The sisterhood and family” within the program is really special, said Emma-leigha Sweetser of Greenwood. “In class or out of class, we will always support each other.”
Sweetser has two family members who were lieutenants in the fire department, and she’s determined to follow in their footsteps. She aims to earn an emergency medical technician license and become a full-time firefighter after graduation.
“The fire just called me, I knew I fit in,” she said. “I was a person trying to be someone.”
Most students at Longley have a family connection to firefighting, but its program also attracts students who thrive on a hands-on approach to learning. The Region 9 fire science program counts towards graduation requirements, and students can choose to pursue six college credits at local community colleges.
“Algebra makes more sense when applied to a variable they can actually touch,” he said.
After falling behind in class, Jacob Cunningham said he likely would have dropped out of school if not for the Region 9 program. Now a sophomore, he is an on-call firefighter for the Mexico Fires and earned his interior firefighter certification shortly after turning 18.
Dyslexia made it difficult for Matthew Griffus from Peru to learn in school, but he has seen a marked improvement in his reading skills since joining the class and studying a subject he is passionate about.
And one student, Donavan Thorpe of Bethel, had already graduated from high school when he enrolled in the program. Like Sweetser, he is determined to become a full-time firefighter.
The program has come a long way since Longley took over the newly formed program ten years ago.
“We had very limited equipment,” he said. “There were possibly two axes, two ladders, (and) incompatible equipment.”
Since then, he has collected an assortment of training devices, which even local service members sometimes use for training.
NEXT GENERATION TRAINING
If there is any indication of the programs success, it is the passion of their alumni. Several regularly return to Region 9, eager to pass on their experience to the next generation of fire science students.
“It’s super important,” Longley said. “They’re closer in age and they have a language that they can reach those youngsters better than me.”
Rumford’s Kody Moretto graduated from Region 9 in 2018 and is a member of the United States Army. No longer a student, he continues to visit the program as an informal instructor.
“Coming back and being able to teach classes, I can see the students have the passion and drive to become great firefighters,” he said. “There’s something about this program that really made me love the job, whether it was the amazing instructor or how once you walk into the class you become part of this big family.”
Franklyn MacDonald, alumnus and member of Dixfield Fire, echoed Moretto’s sentiment, adding that the program had taught him more than just technical skills.
“It’s not always just about fighting fires,” he said. “It’s about knowing when someone’s down, how to talk to them, how to stay calm, and that’s because sometimes all someone needs is just someone to talk to. .”
Dozens of students like Moretto and MacDonald graduated from Region 9’s fire science program. Many continued as career, per diem or volunteer firefighters in surrounding communities including Rumford, Mexico and Peru.
By introducing students to the fire department early, high school programs like Region 9 develop much-needed firefighters for Maine’s understaffed departments.
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