It’s a Tuesday night in Titusville, NJ, and Union Fire Company & Rescue Squad’s riverside firehouse fills with teenagers. This is drill night, and the teens – about a dozen of them – will practice the same skills that all volunteer firefighters need to save lives and protect their own.
“Two minutes,” says Union volunteer firefighter Kurt Pedersen, the evening’s instructor. That’s all the time a firefighter has to put on full turn-out gear, including boots, pants, jacket, hood, helmet and gloves – most of which have more buttons, zippers and fasteners than a non-firefighter would ever guess. “Go,” Pedersen says, and the teens hurry to don the protective clothing.
Similar scenes are happening across Hopewell Valley, where a growing group of young people have dedicated themselves to helping their neighbors by training as volunteer first responders. Hopewell Fire Department & Emergency Medical Unit has nine teenagers in its Youth Firefighter/EMT Program. Pennington Fire Company has two, with several others who plan to join and are participating in the required interview process, and several who last year turned 18 and became full firefighters. As young as 14, all are important to the future of the township’s long-standing tradition of volunteer fire and emergency service.
“To see young people with such dedication and commitment to community service, it makes me so proud,” said Chairman of the Hopewell Township Board of Fire Commissioners Michael A. Chipowsky. “These kids have school, homework, and responsibilities at home. Some of them have part-time jobs. They are giving up limited free time to train and serve right alongside our senior firefighters and EMTs.”
Why do teens make the time to volunteer?
Their reasons frequently echo those of older volunteer first responders: a desire to serve the community, a chance to learn new skills and explore possible future medical or public safety careers, and the creation of strong friendships that feel more like family.
“Somebody has to volunteer. Somebody has to make that commitment. Why not me?” asks Joe Dev, 17, a Pennington Fire Company junior who decided to volunteer after watching a documentary about the firefighters who sacrificed their lives helping others in World Trade Center attacks. “Not to mention, it’s a heck of a lot of fun screaming down the road with lights and sirens on,” Joe adds.
While Hopewell Township’s young fire and EMS volunteers represent the future of fire and emergency service, they are making a difference right now. Hopewell Fire Department & Emergency Medical Unit junior Will Flemming helped save a man’s life. Will, 17, earned his CPR and basic first aid certification soon after joining Hopewell Fire & EMU about a year ago. In January, he enrolled in EMT class. EMT students are required to log hours assisting in the emergency room, and that’s what Will was doing recently when a man went into cardiac arrest just inside the hospital doors.
“They called ‘code blue’ over the PA, and a lot of nurses and physicians ran to where it was,” Will remembered. He ran, too.
A nurse asked Will to do CPR. He had had lots of practice on CPR mannequins, but this was Will’s first time on a real person. A doctor administered epinephrine – adrenaline – and the patient’s heart began beating again, only to stop again later. Will performed CPR a second time – he was one of a team that took two-minute turns at the physically demanding task. The man’s heart resumed, and kept beating.
“My CPR training kicked in, and it ended up being successful,” said Will, who intends to keep volunteering even after high school, while he’s working toward becoming an ER physician. “The guy lived, and that’s really cool.”
Pennington junior Joe, a volunteer for less than a year, helped ensure a new life came into the world safely. When two feet of snow fell in January, he was part of a six-person duty crew who stayed at the firehouse that night. The pagers went off at 1 a.m. – a woman was in labor, and her car was stuck in the driveway.
“Watching the volunteer EMTs bring that pregnant woman through the path we had just shoveled for her and get her to the ambulance was awesome,” Joe said.
A boarding student at the Pennington School, Joe usually runs – literally – the quarter mile or so between his dorm and the firehouse when his pager sounds.
Union volunteer Craig Olander, a junior who turned 18 two weeks ago, owns a part-time landscaping business and has arrived at the station on a lawn mower. Pedersen keeps a photo of the mower parked in front of the firehouse, which he keeps on his cell phone.
“I have a passion for helping other people,” Craig said. In addition to the demands of volunteer work, school work, and in Craig’s case, a business, Craig and Joe have started Firefighter I classes. That means fitting in many hours of training, with homework and a test. Craig is also an EMT, and Joe will be enrolled in an accelerated EMT training program this summer.
His advice to any teen in Hopewell Valley thinking of getting involved: start now. “Join as soon as possible so you start to learn everything,” Craig said. “Being prepared is the number one thing for us, and all the knowledge you have learned builds up. It makes it a lot easier to go through fire school.”
Katie Conover, a Hopewell Fire Department volunteer, got in on the action early. Just 14 and the Hopewell squad’s youngest member, she’s already logged seven months’ experience.
Until they turn 16, neither fire nor EMT volunteers can go on calls. At 16, they can ride the ambulance or fire truck and assist on scene, but cannot enter a burning building or go on certain medical calls, including those on major highways or involving hazardous materials, explained Michael Beninato, Union Fire & Rescue EMS captain and youth team advisor.
While age limits the ways teens contribute, it does not limit the value of their contribution, Beninato said. Once they are 16, junior firefighters assist their senior counterparts by setting up hoses and other equipment on scene, filling portable ponds, retrieving the right tool, bringing full oxygen tanks. Junior EMTs can enter homes and establish patient contact.
They can perform CPR. They can offer comfort. Even those younger than 16 can test equipment and supplies and pack it onto ambulances and fire trucks. They assist with fundraisers. And when you see a shiny fire truck or ambulance, you can probably thank a teen member.
Regardless of age, all teen volunteers get fire and EMT training and can participate in life-like drills that utilize those skills.
Marcus Jones, a Hopewell Fire Department volunteer just shy of his 16th birthday, describes a training exercise in which juniors had to put on air packs and travel in realistic but harmless smoke through wall studs then up the stairs to find a victim. “I can’t yet go into these situations in real life, but I get to learn how it feels, and it’s a pretty cool experience,” he said.
“Many other kids my age who are not part of any fire or EMT squad may never experience the things I have gotten to,” Katie said. “Every experience at Hopewell EMT training or with the other members has been a good one, and I cannot wait until I turn 16.”
Hopewell Fire Department’s Marcus Jones is organizing an effort to encourage more students at his high school, Hopewell Central Valley, to volunteer. He suspects many don’t realize they can volunteer while still in high school.
Union Fire Company & Rescue Squad Chief Bryan Malkiewicz watched with obvious pride as the Union junior firefighters were put through their paces, inspired by – and sometimes playfully chided by – their older firehouse brothers and sisters.
Malkiewicz predicts many of these young people will become full-fledged firefighters. The number who come back to his firehouse after college is somewhat smaller – life will take some away from Hopewell Valley – but he hopes they will serve wherever they land.
Union Firefighter William “Buddy” Tunnicliffe was once among the youth members, having followed some of his older friends, plus his parents, into the volunteer fire service when he was just 14. That was 15 years ago. He enjoys guiding the new young members, as other firefighters helped him when he was that young. “They’re picking up where several of the other guys around here and I left off, and it’s a really neat thing,” he said. Being able to help others is such a great feeling, he said. “As soon as I turned 18 and saw that I could do what my peers were doing, I kept going.”
Hopewell Fire Department & EMU junior Kathryn Chapman, 16, can relate. She joined the department to learn basic emergency skills, should she ever witness an emergency, but her experiences soon inspired her to go well beyond that. This fall, with study help from the older volunteers who had already been through it, she completed the EMT certification course.
“Joining the junior program has given me experience working with others who have similar interest and has allowed me to give back to the community that I have grown up in,” she said. “Through the department, I have completed over 200 hours of community service, which permitted me to join the National Honors Society at high school. The junior program has allowed me to create an identity for myself, as a leader and as a member of my community.”
Every Hopewell Valley fire house needs more volunteers – teens and adults. To learn more, visit www.ProtectHopewellValley.com. Click on Contact Us/Volunteer or call Matthew Martin at 609-537-0287.