Future firefighters train, socialize and get involved



August 13, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FEIGNING BLINDNESS in a shadowy hallway of the "burn building," Carleigh Maness knows she has to feel her way out of danger. She runs her fingers over the fire hose couplings, searching for the directional markings that will lead her safely outside.

Carleigh, 11, who lives in North Laurel, belongs to the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department's Junior Firefighters, and she is training.

The inside of the three-story burn building is completely black, a maze of doors and narrow passageways. The structure mimics a house consumed by smoke, with no visibility. On the first floor, a well-used dummy lies across a torn-up sofa, waiting for another practice session in search and rescue.

The junior firefighter program at Elkridge Station 1 introduces youths, ages 9 to 15, to the fire service. At age 16, the young volunteers can join the adult firefighting service. But until then, the program offers a chance to train, socialize and be involved.

Dan Casey, a 12-year veteran of the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department, started the program at Elkridge in 1998 to "give youth something else to do, besides sports," he said. "It gave parents and children even ground, where both learn something at the same time. It also provides the future for our department," he said.

The program started with five members and has grown to 50. Its mission is to develop interest and skills in basic firefighting and emergency medical services while building character and confidence in young people. To accomplish this, Casey, a Baltimore City firefighter, gets help from seven advisers who are trained in emergency medical services or firefighting. Parental involvement is also critical, he said, especially when trying to get 50 youngsters from one place to another.

Parents serve as volunteers on the banquet and other committees, and as chaperones at fund-raisers; some stay to watch the training sessions.

Vicky Giddings of North Laurel praised the program and what it means to her twin daughters, Sara and Emily, age 12.

"I think it's something that these grown men take time out of their lives - their free time - to teach them," said Giddings, who volunteers on several committees.

Sara and Emily joined the junior firefighters two years ago at the invitation of a friend. Sara wants to be a firefighter, and Emily hopes to teach kindergarten, but the sisters have both found a home in the firefighting community. Their participation and enthusiasm, combined with good grades, earned the girls an early promotion to sergeant.

The training is geared toward youths, but, Casey said, "we can't show them everything." He believes that even when the participants are 12 it is possible to determine who has an aptitude for becoming a firefighter or emergency medical technician.

"We use them as role models among their peers," he said.

During a recent ladder-training session, with the sun beating down, sweat quickly soaked the juniors' hair under their yellow fire helmets. Older and taller volunteers wear the standard 50-pound gear (including heavy fire pants) and regulation boots, while the younger ones wear a lightweight version.

Standing on the parking lot, the juniors watched, wide-eyed, as Julie Maness-Jaco hooked one of her legs around the 14-foot ladder to demonstrate how to wield an ax if it becomes necessary to break through a window. Maness-Jaco, a newly certified volunteer firefighter and Carleigh's mother, took her ax in both hands and leaned backward into the air.

The juniors don't practice that skill, but they did get a chance to climb the ladder and crawl into the second-story window of the burn building. Adviser Keith Summers waited at the top, calling out climbing instructions and supporting his crew with a strong arm. The braver (and mostly older) juniors had the option of climbing a second ladder extended nearly 30 feet to the third floor.

Sara Giddings said she liked the maze and the rescue training.

"You have to imagine there's a body in there and the sooner you get out, they can live. That's why I'm really quick," she said.

Sara takes her training with junior firefighters seriously.

"When I participate, I show I can be relied on. Then they can trust me," she said.

The Elkridge group has another set of 12-year-old twins - Derek and Desiree Williams of Jessup. Their mother, Sheryl Williams, said her children love the hands-on training. She said she is pleased that they are "learning to follow orders and pay attention."

Taking responsibility is a natural outcome of participating in the junior firefighter program.

"Some of the youngsters really blossom," Casey said. "A few who were struggling have turned around and are leaders now." Juniors must maintain a C average in school to participate. If they need academic help, firefighters provide tutoring at the station.

The youth program is self-supporting. To raise funds, the juniors sponsor the Fire Department's popular teen dances and help staff a concession stand at Rockburn Park.

Much of the program's budget is used to help the junior firefighters maintain an engine - JR-1, a 1979 Spartan pumper that they use for drills and parades. The crew won an award for Best Appearing Contemporary Pumper two years in a row at the Glen Burnie Memorial Day parade, and for Best Appearing Junior or Cadet Company at the Maryland Firemen's Convention in Ocean City in June.

Youngsters interested in joining a Howard County junior firefighter program might also want to consider traveling west. Junior firefighters have been training at the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department for more than 20 years, Chief Mickey Day said. The West Friendship Cadets have 17 members.

Information about the Elkridge juniors: 410-984-0976. Information about the West Friendship program: 410-313-5403.

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