Local high school students take firefighting classes as part of new program
Kristy McKinney crouched near the side door of the abandoned motel, aiming the nozzle of the long, heavy fire hose squarely forward.
Ken Roth lined up behind her, gripping an ax in one hand and the hose in the other.
Morgan Sheppard felt the door from the bottom to the top, alerting the group that it was hot. He turned the knob, pushed open the door and scurried to the back of the line.
Artificial smoke billowed from the motel. Cold water dribbled out of the hose nozzle. A fire engine rumbled in the gravel parking lot.
The group headed inside, checked that the floor was stable and sprayed water on the walls and doorframes. The group backed up, pulled the hose out and switched positions to run the drill again.
McKinney, Roth and Sheppard are among nine local high school students enrolled in a new program through Gateway Technical College that allows them to take firefighting classes and earn credits toward an associate degree.
The students participated in training exercises at the former Inn-B-Tween Motel in Bloomfield Township on two recent Tuesdays, practicing everything from getting dressed in turnout gear to breathing with an air tank to cutting holes in walls and roofs.
The program—an initiative of the Lake Geneva Fire Department and Badger High School—gives students an opportunity to get a jump-start on college and explore a possible career in firefighting.
Students not only participate in hands-on training but also do shifts at the fire station.
"They're really getting a feel for how it is to work as a team," said Lake Geneva Fire Lt. Ryan Derrick, who worked with the students on training exercises at the motel. "This is a good learning experience for them."
Good role models
The new firefighting program is a combination of two successful programs already in place at the high school and fire station.
The Youth Options program allows high school juniors and seniors to take classes at a local university or technical college and earn both high school and college credits.
The Explorers program, which is run through a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America, allows boys and girls ages 14 to 20 to learn about a career by working at a local business or organization.
The firefighting program links the work experience provided by the Explorers program with the educational background offered by the Youth Options program, giving students a solid foundation for an important and rewarding career, said Capt. John Peters of the Lake Geneva Fire Department.
"Our goal is to be good role models for the community … and give back to the community," he said. "We want to share our trade with kids who are interested. And we want to get kids interested."
Students in the firefighting program can earn 25 credits toward an associate degree in fire science from Gateway. Program coordinators at the fire department, high school and college wanted to offer students a slate of classes that would prepare them and keep them engaged.
"We looked at what courses would be of interest to students and would really get them hooked on the fire service … and lead them into a firefighting career," said John Dahms, fire coordinator at Gateway. "We settled on courses that are very hands-on, so we can cement that mindset that (firefighting) is about service … and they have to be prepared."
‘Well on their way'
The program is open to students from several local high schools: Badger, Elkhorn and Delavan-Darien, as well as Burlington and Wilmot. The students must have good grades and good attendance to be eligible. They also must be able to leave school for classes at the Lake Geneva fire station.
"We had plenty of interest," said Marie Collins, career and technical education coordinator at Badger. "These kids are well on their way now. Our hope is that they'll continue with the certification … and get their associate degree."
Many of the students enrolled in the program have been interested in becoming firefighters for a long time.
Will Swanson, 17, a junior at Badger High School, said he values the experience he's gaining through classes, training and duty shifts.
"This gives you a head start on your career—and it's fun," he said, a red mark on the bridge of his nose, the result of a mishap with the fire hose the day before. "You know what's going on, so you're not going in blind later."
Coordinators plan to evaluate the success of the program and decide if more fire departments or more high schools could get involved, Peters said.
"We've got the steam started, and now we've got to keep it going," he said.