Growing up to be firefighters Training: After completing two years of study and clerical work through an inner-city program, six young men and women begin training at the Baltimore City Fire Academy.

September 09, 1996|By Kaana Smith | Kaana Smith,SUN STAFF

It's about a 3-mile trek to the Baltimore City Fire Academy from Rappolla Street in East Baltimore.

Since Aug. 18, Jennifer Clemens has been walking each morning and afternoon along that stretch.

And each day, she's coming closer to accomplishing a dream.

Clemens, 19, is among the first group of inner-city youths admitted to the Baltimore City Fire Academy this summer through a program designed to offer young people a chance to join the city Fire Department.

The program targets city high school juniors. Organizers hope to diversify the ranks of the Fire Department and help those burdened by poverty and other social disadvantages.

"I just thought it would be neat to do something I had always talked about when I was little," Clemens said. "But I was surprised and kind of scared."

Clemens, a self-described tomboy, grew up in Highlandtown. According to her mother, she was often the only girl playing ball with the neighborhood boys.

"She always wanted to get her own way, and she usually got it," said Melia Tomas, Clemens' mother. While her neighbors' children would come home crying with bruised arms, legs and egos, Tomas recalls a different situation when it came to her daughter.

"I don't think I ever saw her come home in tears," Tomas said.

The process that led Clemens and the five other graduating cadets to the academy on Pulaski Highway began after the first group of 26 youths who excelled on a written essay and agility test were admitted to the program.

The program is divided into three one-year phases starting in the senior year of high school. The second year is an apprenticeship at Fire Department headquarters, concluding with entrance into the fire academy.

During the first phase, mornings are spent in school, and afternoons are spent on training. Students also are required to take exams and quizzes each week.

While some prevailed, a large number did not move on to the second phase. After their high school graduation, only six of the 26 cadets made the cut. A variety of reasons, from inability to deal with the workload to personal circumstances, account for the low number, said Donald Reed, program coordinator.

At headquarters, during the second phase, Clemens and the other cadets performed clerical tasks. By August of this year, they were ready to graduate from cadet to probationary firefighter.

At a luncheon to honor the six participants, officers and staff members reminisced about the youths.

In single file, the honorees stood in uniforms of dark blue pants and light blue shirts. Theresa Jones, 19, and Anthony Smith, 21, worked the crowd of colleagues with their humor and wit.

Bryan Jones, 20, made light of his height, trying to elevate his 5-foot frame by standing on his toes.

Before pictures were taken, Malik Habeebullah, 19, shook his head in amazement as Smith and Tony Cero, 20, put on their caps backward and struck a pose.

They are a diverse group: two black men, one black woman, two white men and one white woman, ranging in age from 19 to 21.

"If it weren't for the program, I doubt they would've met," Reed said. "They've spent a lot of time together, shared their dreams and fears together."

Clemens' schedule begins at 6: 30 a.m. -- when she drops off her 10-month-old daughter, Ashley, at her mother's home. She then trains all day with the other cadets. Finally, after two hours of study at home, her day ends at 11 p.m.

On a typical day, the students, who resemble astronauts in their training clothes, walk around the training grounds -- a .3 mile walk -- in full gear, each carrying 65 to 75 pounds of equipment.

At the end of their journey in 80- to 90-degree temperatures, they then ascend stairs and descend fire escapes.

When it was over, a Fire Department instructor, gave a thumbs-up to the students, including Clemens. "I knew I had to change," said Clemens, who moved away from her parents at age 18, and then married and had her first child in October. "I had been used to playing all my life without worrying, and now it's time for me to grow up."

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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