Henrico County VA
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Into the fire

Inaugural teen fire academy graduates 11 students
Teen Summer Fire Academy participants practice removing a body from a burning building.

The stage was set for an exercise at the Henrico County fire training facility last month. A three-story cinderblock structure represented the burning building. Traffic cones stood in each window, and dummies were hidden in the dark recesses within. Sirens could be heard in the distance.

Three fire trucks filled with trainees pulled up to the imaginary scene. Firefighters hopped out of one truck and initiated a search and rescue mission, soon emerging with one dummy and reentering to find another. Crew members from the second truck set up hoses, charged the lines and entered the building, expertly knocking down the cones with the water. Meanwhile, firefighters from the third truck hustled around the perimeter, setting up ladders at each window.

As soon as the exercise was over, the sweaty trainees drifted into two distinct groups and each began to boast of their superiority.

“We were more strategic and had more teamwork,” one said, as she gestured with rolling eyes towards the other group, which had begun a spontaneous chin-up competition. “They were always getting in trouble and having to run.”

“No way! We crushed them in kickball! Eleven to nothing!” chirped one from the chin-up bar area. “We dominated the girls.”

Firefighters do not normally divide into boys versus girls for training exercises, but these were not typical firefighters. The crew that had just expertly utilized a variety of skills and teamwork was composed of recently graduated eighth-grade students from Wilder Middle School.

Henrico County Public Schools and the Henrico County Fire Department teamed together to create this program, known as the Teen Summer Fire Academy. Over the course of four weeks, eleven students learned the basic skills of firefighting.

It's getting hot in here

The first week was spent getting acclimated to the turnout gear that they would have to wear the majority of the time.

“They weren’t thrilled when they learned that we wear these things, even when it’s 97 degrees,” said Zach Zellner, 32, as he gestured towards the hood, gloves, jacket, helmet and pants each student wore.

In the second week, students earned their CPR certification and completed a basic EMS training. During the third and fourth weeks, students trained with hoses, set up ladders, experimented with the vehicle extrication tools and learned how to handle situations involving hazardous materials.

Zellner developed the program, which he modeled heavily after a teen fire academy in Manassas City.

In order to effectively push the students, the instructors turned the lessons into competitions between the boys and girls. “For each skill we have a game involved,” Zellner said. “To train them on the hose, we hung a ball about 16 feet off the ground and used hoses to knock it back and forth.”

Tulani Wiggins, 14, loved the hose training. “You usually don’t get to play with water at such a high pressure,” she said. “We learned all the different ways to put out a fire.”

Traversing 'a terrifying death trap'

Students crawled through a maze filled with obstacles to replicate conditions within a burning building during a search and rescue mission. Mentioning the maze incited a chorus of groaning and nightmarish descriptions.

“The maze is a terrifying death trap,” said Jaelen Adkins, 14. “You crawl down a bunch of wires, there are broken cement blocks everywhere, the whole time you are wearing your gear and have a big air tank on your back.” The boys around him nodded in solemn agreement.

While the boys may have finished the maze more quickly, the girls received praise for finishing as a group.

“We did the maze, and no one got left behind,” said Tydaja Safewright, 14.

The experience was as foreign for the staff as it was for the students. Accustomed to training adults, many of the instructors were unsure about what a group of 14-year-olds could achieve.

“This is our pilot program, so we probably pushed them harder than we should have,” said instructor Jay Brown, 54. “But these kids far exceeded what we thought they could do.”

The 11 students who elected to spend the first month of summer sweating through fire training were pulled from Wilder Middle School’s Fire Club, which began in January.

In addition to games, the instructors used reverse psychology as well. With a laugh, Brown said, “We would tell them, ‘You’re probably not ready for this, but maybe we’ll let you try it.’ Next thing you know they are begging us to do it.”

Brown, the instructor in charge of PT, was tasked with the responsibility of motivating the students to embrace the strength and conditioning training necessary to be a firefighter. While their peers enjoyed air conditioning, the pool and the other pleasures of summer, the 11 trainees in the fire academy ran suicides in full turnout gear and sweated through several days on which the temperature topped out above 100 degrees, all while listening to Mr. Brown’s voice.

“Remember this face!” was the refrain commonly heard from Brown throughout the week. With a grin he would point to his smiling mug as students panted through their daily PT. “Remember this beautiful face!”

The catchphrase was both a joke and an order. His message was clear. He was not going to let the students quit.

Dejha Patton, 15, appreciated the hands-on approach by the instructors.

“They all had their own way of pushing us to greatness,” she said. “They do everything with us.”

Rite of passage

The Teen Fire Academy marked the passage between middle school and high school, a transition time during which students are emerging from childhood and beginning to ponder the tough college and career choices looming on the horizon. Several county officials present for the culminating exercise praised the program for helping students as they begin making those choices.

“They are not only learning fire skills, but also teamwork, supporting each other, even just being on time,” Henrico County Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Kinlaw said. “Those are things that are important no matter what career.”

Likewise, Mac Beaton, HCPS's director of career and technical education, said that after completing the program, students are more equipped to make informed career decisions.

“Here you have a much deeper level of getting young people engaged with school and the world of work,” Beaton said.

Henrico County Fire Chief Anthony McDowell praised the collaborative nature of the program.

“We had a tremendous commitment by the school system,” said McDowell. “When you get that kind of support and the right people in place, the program will grow.”

After the training exercise, students gathered around a picnic area to eat hot dogs and hamburgers before being officially recognized for their success in the first ever Henrico County Teen Summer Fire Academy. The chin-up competition continued in the corner, and Brown chuckled at the boys’ new-found love.

“They didn’t want to go near that thing at the beginning. Now, every break they are over there doing pull ups,” he said.

“But perhaps the greatest thing, if nothing else,” Brown said, “is even if they don’t continue with a career in firefighting, they can think back to these four weeks and overcome difficulties and fears. We had kids who are claustrophobic, but every single one completed the maze. We had kids who are scared of heights, but every single kid climbed a ladder that extended 100 feet into the air. They go up white knuckled, they are a whole different person coming down.”

At the culmination of the academy, Dejha Patton, agreed. “All the sweat and dedication paid off,” she said.

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