Dressed in firefighter turnout gear, three teen-agers cautiously enter a pitch-black room on hands and knees. Their mission: rescue a child trapped in a maze of rooms cloaked in darkness.
Before they enter the room, an instructor commands, "Make sure you talk to each other and don't stand up!"
Minutes later, the three crawl back out, carrying a young girl to safety. Mission accomplished.
The search and rescue procedure, held at the Emergency Operations Center training grounds in Westminster on a recent Saturday, was one of seven areas of instruction offered to members of the county's junior fire departments. The program was coordinated by the Fire Department Training Committee of the Carroll County Firemen's Association.
Senior members from several of Carroll's 14 volunteer fire departments, many of them junior advisers, staffed the learning stations.
"It's motivational to get them together like this," said Frank Penn of Taneytown, training committee chairman. "It's important keeping these guys motivated and interested."
The 75 junior members from 10 fire companies at the exercise had plenty to keep them interested. Divided into small groups, the youths, ages 12 to 17, moved from station to station over a five-hour period.
Outside a renovated barn where trainees went through three mazes, a group was instructed in the proper procedure for opening a fire hydrant, laying a hose line to the engine's pumps and advancing a small hose line to the fire.
Another group learned how to operate rescue tools, including the "Jaws of Life," cutters and rubber air bags. Others learned the proper use of safety belts while climbing to the top of Westminster's aerial ladder and back down.
"The ladder is scary because it bounces a little bit as you get toward the top," said Russ Drapkin, 14, Sykesville's junior captain. "It's not that bad as long as you don't look down."
Though the training sounds dangerous -- and the real-life situations are -- every precaution was taken for the youths' safety while they practiced their duties. And safety -- namely proper procedures -- was stressed at each station.
"They're never put into any [real] situation -- just training," Mr. Penn said.
Even though the senior fire departments must obey safety and child labor laws, the juniors are integral members at 12 of the county's 14 volunteer fire stations.
The junior fire department program is important for several reasons, fire officials say:
* It provides future full-fledged members for the stations, which is necessary in a county that depends on volunteers for its fire and rescue protection.
"Hopefully, we can retain them [juniors] as seniors when they turn 18," said John Johnson, a junior adviser at Westminster.
* The teens help with fund-raisers and activities around the firehouse. At many stations, the juniors also have their own fund-raisers to buy equipment and supplies.
* Teens who are considering a career in firefighting have the opportunity to get basic training before taking state certification classes.
"They learn everything before they actually do it, so it better prepares them," said Jerry Shaw, a junior adviser at Mount Airy. "Being a junior helps them understand people and how things work."
* The program involves the youths in a constructive and educational activity, while fostering a sense of pride when they can help someone in trouble.
"It's good because a lot of people don't know what to do, and when I see a fire, I know what to do," said David Lookingbill, 17, a Taneytown junior member.
Added Diane Koontz, 14, of Sykesville, "You learn a lot and it makes you feel good that you can do something else. It gives you confidence."
* Time spent at fire department fund-raisers, meetings and training sessions is counted toward the students' community service school requirement.
According to information provided by the individual fire companies, about 190 youths, including at least 20 girls, are involved in the junior fire departments. The minimum age for joining varies from 12 to 14, with admission to the senior fire department ranging from 16 to 18.
Though many juniors come from families that are involved in the fire department, others join because they know somebody at the station or because it's something interesting and positive to do. Some juniors want to be career firefighters.
To join, youths must have their parents' permission and a work permit, must fill out an application and go through the company's procedures for membership. In most cases, the wait is a month.
The stations are strict about adherence to rules: behavior, curfews, keeping up grades, following proper procedures during training.
"Nothing is done without the parents' permission," said Mike Cartwright, a Union Bridge junior adviser. "Parents are told what's involved and are welcome to attend meetings and activities.
"School comes first," he said. "We try to push the idea of education as much as possible -- the better they do in school, the better they'll do in the fire department."