Indiana Fire Department Trains High School Students to Offset Firefighter Shortage

Cicero Township junior firefighter program prepares students for fire service.
(Cicero Township Volunteer Fire Department photo, Facebook)

Cicero Township junior firefighter program prepares students for fire service

Carson Gerber, Kokomo Tribune, Ind.

(MCT)

Apr. 24–TIPTON – Austin Owens on Saturday stood suited up in full firefighter gear, blasting water from a hose to put out an imaginary fire in a large, open yard near the Cicero Township Volunteer Fire Department.

But soon, the fires won’t just be imaginary for the 18-year-old Tipton High School senior. In three weeks, right after graduating high school, he’ll be eligible to join up with with the volunteer department as a certified firefighter.

And that’s thanks to the department’s junior firefighter program. For the last 15 years, Cicero Township, which encompasses the city of Tipton, has opened up the station to any high school student who wants hands-on training to prepare for a career in firefighting – or just a taste of what the profession is all about.

That includes includes spraying hoses, search and rescue, filling up tanker trunks, cutting open vehicles to extract drivers, doing CPR, putting out brush fires, and just about everything else a rural firefighter might have to do on any given day.

Students can even go out to real house fires to observe firefighters at work, and then go in to the structure afterward to see how it was contained and how it started.

Owens, whose parents both have firefighting backgrounds, joined the junior program about two years ago. Since then, thanks to the training, he’s been able to pass the tests in the fist two major firefighter certifications that allow him to join the department.

Now, on top of soon serving as a volunteer firefighter, he’s gearing up to take EMT classes this summer, as well as courses at Ivy Tech to kick-start his career.

“I’m excited, but I’m not going to lie about it,” Owens said. “I’m pretty nervous. It’s going to be a packed summer, but I know in the long run it will be worth it. I’d rather take a couple years working my tail off to get to where I want to be in life.”

Deputy Fire Chief Donny Ross, a 30-year veteran with the Cicero Township department who started the junior program, said that’s a common story for most of the students who come through the program. He estimated around 75% end up working in either a volunteer or full-time department.

“It’s a good program to have for high schoolers, because all them are wondering, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?'” Ross said. “This gives them a closeup, personal view of an occupation they may want to go on to pursue.”

But it’s not just a program that helps students. It’s also become a way to combat the staggering drop in the number of volunteer firefighters willing to sign up for a high-stress job that offers little pay.

A survey published last year by the National Fire Protection Association found that volunteer firefighter numbers for 2016 and 2017 were the lowest ever recorded since the organization began the survey in 1983.

The report estimated there were 682,600 volunteer firefighters in the U.S. in 2017, marking a more than 16% loss from 2015, when 814,850 volunteer firefighters were estimated to be active.

In addition to the decline in the number of firefighters serving the smallest communities, the report also found the average age of those firefighters continued to increase.

Fifty-three percent of firefighters in 2017 serving communities with populations of 2,500 or less were over the age of 40, and 32% were over the age of 50, highlighting a years-long trend.

Kevin Quinn, chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the report should serve as a wakeup call to anyone who is served by, or cares about, volunteer firefighters.

“We know many volunteer fire departments are struggling to maintain adequate staffing,” he said in a release. “However, the scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address.”

And that’s just what the junior program at Cicero Township Volunteer Fire Department is doing.

Lt. Travis Bradford, whose son went through the program, said offering free, real-life training to students is one of the best ways to attract new, young talent to the dwindling pool of volunteer firefighters.

“If you want to come here an learn, we’ll teach you whatever we can,” he said. “And if you join another department in another town or county, you’re still filling a volunteer seat, and that helps the overall picture and fills the void from the declining numbers of volunteer firefighters.”

That’s become even more important as junior programs disappear around the area. Ross said the volunteer departments in Windfall and the town of Cicero recently disbanded their student training programs. Now, the one in Cicero Township is the only one left in the area.

Firefighter Sam Abbott, who runs the junior program and is Ross’s son, estimated up to 50 students have gone through the program since it started, and even though most go on to become firefighters, the training still offers important lessons and life skills for those who don’t.

That includes Abbott’s daughter, Ivy, a 16-year-old student at Tipton High School. She said she plans on going to college to become a forensic nurse or paramedic, but the training she’s receiving in the firehouse is still invaluable.

On Saturday, that training included practicing her search and rescue skills and how to fill the tanker trunks that hold up to 3,000 gallons of water. But, she said, it wasn’t the hands-on lessons that have had the biggest impact.

“I’ve learned to really work well with others, because this takes teamwork,” she said. “And I’ve learned that fires and accidents can happen at anytime, and there need to be people who can save lives. I want to save lives.”

Bradford said that in the end, saving lives is what volunteer firefighters are all about, but that’s becoming harder to do as more and more people abandon the field.

He said that’s why the department is dedicated to keeping its junior program thriving for years to come, offering real training to students and setting them on the path to become volunteer firefighters.

“They’re our future,” Bradford said. “When we’re old and worn out and done, who’s going to replace us when we can’t do this anymore?”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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