Washington Youth Program Provides Skills Training to Future Firefighters
By Alex Avila
It’s the middle of a gorgeous day in Kennewick, WA. The sun is shining, the springtime air is warm, and I’m standing here watching 25 high-school students coming together to practice putting out a car fire. They work with the discipline and focus of experienced firefighters 10 years their senior. There’s an outstanding cohesion, and a genuine delight, to the way these students organize themselves to complete the task at hand. It’s a level of teamwork you rarely see outside an actual department. Their instructor, Nathan Allington, guides them lightly, occasionally shouting out a reminder or an instruction to keep the teens on point, but for the most part this class works like a high-functioning machine. It’s amazing, really.
These are the students from the junior firefighting program at Tri-Tech Skills Center. The Skills Center is a remarkable training school that works in conjunction with some 20 high schools in the surrounding area, and offers both high school and college credit to enrolled students. Students who choose to participate at Tri-Tech are given access to a wide variety of professional training programs that include auto body tech, digital arts, law enforcement, and firefighting. Each of these programs amounts to half of a student’s high school curriculum for the year, giving them a level of focus around their education that will set them up to excel in the professional world after graduation.
“Each student chooses to be here and has a desire to learn about the program they have picked. It’s a pretty great place,” says Nathan Allington, a paid Kennewick firefighter who has been running Tri-Tech’s firefighting program since 2008. “It makes them a little more motivated, it gives them a common interest. They have to be on track to graduate at their home schools, so we get a good group of students that come here. They learn a lot, we prepare them for employment, and then they get out there and start helping in our communities right off the bat.”
Community involvement is a large part of Tri-Tech’s firefighting program, and rightly so. It takes an extraordinary amount of work to get a program like this up and running, and it takes the ongoing support of local resources to keep it going.
“We couldn’t have the program that we have without involving all the other agencies in our area. We have the state involved, we have colleges involved, we have all of our local agencies involved,” explains Alllington. Gear and equipment is donated by local fire departments. The students get to go on ride-alongs with working firefighters. Industry professionals give their time and resources to make sure the next generation of firefighters will have the best training available.
This level of investment in the youth is truly invaluable, and it comes at an urgent time. According to research compiled by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), there is a growing need to step up the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters, which comprise 69 percent of all firefighters in the United States. The number of volunteers has declined over the past three decades, while the call volume to departments has tripled. Many departments find it a challenge to recruit younger members and are struggling to find volunteers to fill in the gaps as older members look toward retirement.
“Our research shows that there is high interest in volunteering among the younger generation, but many simply don’t know that opportunities in the volunteer fire service exist,” says Rachel Buczynski, Program Manager for the NVFC’s National Junior Firefighter Program. “Junior firefighter and youth programs are critical because they open the door for young people to learn about the fire service, receive hands-on training, and gain valuable career and life skills they can use as adults. Many of these juniors go on to serve their fire departments as volunteer or career firefighters, helping to build the future of the fire service.”
This is a need that Tri-Tech is actively addressing. One student, Tyler Junt, has enrolled in a conditional volunteer program as part of his curriculum at Tri-Tech. “You actually get to be with a department and actually be a volunteer firefighter,” says Junt, describing the program. “There are some limitations considering the fact that I’m not 18 yet, I can’t legally go and actually fight a real house fire. But I can do it in training. I get to help out with the EMS, I get to go to HazMat academy and structural academy, do everything that a straight up volunteer would do. All the local chiefs know about it. We get to talk to them and ride along with Kennewick Fire Department. You get to meet firefighters and get your foot in the door before anybody else. It’s really helpful, especially if you want to get a career here.”
For a profession that takes such a strong emphasis on personal sacrifice and service, giving back to the community that supports them is a tremendous part of the students’ education. “A lot of what we teach is leadership and teamwork and giving back to your community. First year students are required 30 hours [of community service], second years are required 40 hours, but most of them have 80, 100, 120 hours logged,” says Allington.
This hands-on involvement is a large part of what keeps the students so engaged with the work that they do. At the earliest possible stages, they’re learning the value of public service, as well as the rewarding family environment of the fire service that validates it.
Students Cameron Hagins and Mikayla Sallee both speak excitedly about the close bonds forged through their extracurricular work. “There’s a lot of time outside school together,” says Sallee. “We do a lot of community service. A lot. We do a lot of leadership activities.”
“We’re in here all year, every day, for half a school day,” adds Hagins. “We get to know each other really well and it becomes a family, really.”
At Tri-Tech, each of their programs work under a “flipped” classroom model, meaning that they spend an equal amount of class time on learning the theory and practical application. Allington explains, “We use IFSTA products and Action Training Systems to help teach the knowledge portion, but we’re a hands-on program so we have a fire truck here. We have a training tower here. We’re able to get the knowledge portion, and then we’re able to use the materials and equipment we have on campus here to teach them the skills necessary to further their interest in the fire service.
“I love the fire service and now I get to teach the youth, the future of the fire service, to love it in the way that I do. It’s been a tremendous opportunity for me. It’s been a tremendous opportunity for our fire department, and really all of our local agencies have joined in to help make our program as successful as it is.”
Alex Avila is a marketing assistant at Action Training Systems. As an aspiring writer, avid researcher, and enthusiastic problem-solver, he’s taken his foray into the world of emergency services as an opportunity to explore the unique and complicated needs therein. He lives in Kitsap County, WA.
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