Grant Chesko, 15, grew up watching television shows about firefighters. Unlike many youngsters today who dream of being fictional superheroes, Griffin looked up to the heroes who saved people in the real world.
“As soon as I turned 14, I went to my department and got the papers,” said the second-year junior cadet from Fairfield Fire & EMS.
One of the noblest professions in the United States needs more young men and women like Chesko, particularly in volunteer fire departments, where the country’s force has receded by nearly 25 percent in the last 30 years, according to a National Volunteer Fire Council report from April.
That’s one of the biggest reasons why Academy Chief David Martin and a host of other firefighters from throughout York and Adams County helped devise the Adams County Junior Firefighter Cadet Camp. This past week, 17 youth, ages 14 to 17, from departments across south central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland have built confidence and expanded their knowledge of the emergency service trade while making fast friends along the way.
“If we don’t hook these kids before they’re 18, we’re probably going to lose them,” Martin said. “Today kids can do anything. They have their own cars and can go anywhere. There’s so many things they can do with the electronic stuff out there. It’s tough to compete.”
Sunday afternoon kicked off the third year of the Adams County training camp, which takes place at the Adams County Volunteer Emergency Services Center. As they arrived, 15 boys and two girls turned in their cell phones for a text-free, internet-free experience and buckled down for an unpredictable week.
Over the next six days, the cadets faced drills meant to push their limitations. From day one, they crawled through a smoke-filled maze, feeling their way over a hose to navigate tight spaces, all while wearing full turnout gear. Later in the week, they practiced teamwork while placing and extending 24-foot ladders or working together to attach, place and pack hoses safely.
Lecturers guided cadets through forced entry approaches, complete with a crowbar and an axe. They also demonstrated how to save a person who’s trapped in a vehicle before bringing in a live volunteer to be rescued.
Every year instructors bring new drills to the camp. Anything is fair game, provided that cadets aren’t introduced to actual fire, Martin said. A Pennsylvania law prevents anyone under the age of 18 from training under such conditions.
“But this is not just about firefighting,” Academy Deputy Chief Sam Ginn said. “This is about building life skills, learning how to live together and accomplish a task, whether it be laundry or cleaning a bunk room. It’s about taking pride and ownership in yourself.”
At the crack of dawn, the cadets awoke each day and headed to the mess hall for a hearty breakfast that includes bagels, waffles, french toast and fruit juice. Karen Rudasill, affectionately called mom by all under her care, was joined by a support staff that prepared two meals per day with ingredients donated by several local businesses.
Each morning, the cadets take a walk to get their blood flowing. An active brain and pliable body are necessary for the exercises that follow, Martin said.
Ten of this year’s cadets are new to the program; the youngest among them have only been in their respective departments for two months.
“You wouldn’t believe the difference between a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old,” Martin said. “Some of them have barely put on turnout gear since they got here, so we had to start from scratch. They have all different capabilities. We let the older ones help with the drills if they know them.”
With a self-contained breathing apparatus attached, the cadets are carrying 60 pounds of equipment.
“That’s a lot if you only weigh 100 pounds,” Martin said.
The first hours and sometimes even days can be a little shaky as cadets get to know one another. Verbal communication between newly-met teens has always been slightly uncomfortable, but in these days of technology face-to-face interaction presents challenges that must be overcome.
“In this business, you have to talk to each other,” Dustin Poist, the academy’s lead instructor said. “You can’t sit there and text somebody next to you that you need to deploy a ladder or to pull a hose line.”
Team building events in the evening loosen the vocal cords. Monday’s kickball game got the competitive juices flowing and Tuesday’s failed attempts at Escape Gettysburg’s escape room taught humility while providing some laughs. On other nights, the cadets go bowling and tour the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
“Everyone becomes great friends. It’s like a brother-and-sisterhood around here,” said third-year cadet Zach Haines, of Hagerstown. “You make friends for a lifetime.”
Building friendships among firefighters is crucial, Poist said. More often than not, multiple fire departments must work together during larger fires and must communicate. When tragedies happen, Martin said talking with others who have been in the line of duty is often a great relief while weighing emotions.
“Kids need to learn that they need to talk to somebody,” Martin said. “Not to just each other if they’re feeling bad about it. We have distress teams in the county that can help them work through it.”
In cases of extreme heat or rain, students hit the books, studying the history of the fire service, how smoke and fire travel through a building and other lessons that may prove critical. Fine motor skill activities, such as knot tying can also be practiced in the classroom.
At night, the boys and girls sleep in separate makeshift bedrooms repurposed from classrooms. The kids sleep on cots from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., knowing at any hour of the night their trainers may set off the fire alarm. Quickly, but safely they scurry to the apparatus bay to simulate preparing for a fire.
The returning cadets said they were most excited for Thursday’s open house, when their parents arrived to see what they’ve learned. The cadets ride in full garb toward their loved ones on a firetruck as the siren blares. Then they put on a full demonstration, climbing a ladder to the top of a four-story training tower to remove roof paneling among other things.
Cadets are encouraged to share any of the tricks they’ve learned with their mentors back home. Though they are more knowledgeable than when they left, ultimately it is up to each department to determine what a junior firefighter can handle during a fire call, Martin said.
In three years, the camp has yet to see anyone go home early. Martin said there have been some close calls, but the staff encouraged campers to do what they could to stay aboard. Not everyone who volunteers with a fire company needs to be on the front lines, he said.
“There are people in the company that have never had turnout gear on in their life, or even been in a fire truck,” Martin said. “We have people who cook, or bring food and water to emergencies. Others help raise money or work on the administrative side. No matter their physical limitations, we have something for them to do.”
The week will conclude at 1 p.m., Saturday, as Adams County Volunteer Emergency Services Association dedicates its training tower module. The public is invited to attend and stay for refreshments.
Adam Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter:@GoodOleTwoNames