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Waterford prepares junior firefighters

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 9:21 a.m.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Junior firefighter Matthew Thomas practices carrying a injured fire victim, which in this case is Jeff Case, 16, with the help of veteran firefighter Matt Springer during a practice session at the Waterford Fire Station in Ligonier.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Junior firefighter Jeff Case, 16, practices carrying a injured fire victim, which in this case is Matthew Thomas, 17, as Tony Amrhein, seen in a TV reflection, looks on during a practice session at the Waterford Fire Station in Ligonier.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Junior firefighter Jeff Case, 16 and a student at Ligonier Valley High School, straps on a mask before a practice session at the Waterford Fire Station in Ligonier.

Since 1990, Waterford Volunteer Fire Department has brought in new crew members through a junior firefighters program that prepares them to join the company at age 18. These juniors observe during emergency calls, learning the protocols and procedures of being a firefighter. Because they are under the age of 18, juniors may not go into a house on a call, though they can assist with hoses to fight exterior fires.

Assistant Chief Pat Kromel said the number of firefighters in Waterford is not as high as in the past, and this program is a way of keeping the numbers up, and making sure young fire fighters have the necessary knowledge and experience to go out on calls.

“We're not getting any younger. We can't keep doing it,” Kromel commented. “Our lieutenants should be 25 years old, not 40- and 50-year-olds. It's a dying breed. The younger kids are definitely the future of it. As long as we keep them active and keep them interested I think it will continue to work well for us.”

Every Tuesday, these juniors visit the fire hall to practice the necessary skills. In one exercise the juniors get dressed in full fire fighting gear, then cover their masks so they cannot see. They must follow a fire hose along a winding course to find an injured firefighter at the end of it, always maintaining contact with the team and keeping one hand on the hose. The juniors must remember protocols, such as checking a door for heat and having tools for whatever obstacles could be in the path. The juniors must find the injured person in the amount of time an oxygen tank would allow, which could be between 10 and 25 minutes, depending on how fast the oxygen is consumed.

“You learn how to pay attention. You learn how to control yourself real quick,” junior firefighter Matthew Thomas noted. “When you jump out of the truck you can't be all gung- ho and happy, you have to remember what to grab off the truck before you start running over to whatever the call is. You have to think about what you are doing before you do it, and always be prepared for the worst.”

Thomas, 17, is learning alongside three other juniors, Sydney Beaufort, Jeff Case and Amanda Shawley, all 16. As Waterford residents, these juniors grew up seeing relatives and friends riding aboard the fire engines racing off to the next emergency call. Case said being a part of the fire company has been a dream of his since he was very young.

“I decided I wanted to help the community out and give something back. Ever since I was a little kid I saw the guys and the trucks and I always wanted to be one of those guys. It's a blast. We have so much fun,” Case said.

Beaufort said she grew up in the company, with many relatives serving as firefighters, which encouraged her to become a part of the department.

“I just like being a part of what we are and doing what we do. It's a great experience; it's a great environment down here. We are like one big family. It's a good feeling,” she said.

Second Lt. Josh Derk signed up for the junior firefighter program as soon as he was allowed at age 15. Now at age 23, Derk helps pass the knowledge and experience he gained from the program onto the next group of young people. He noted that being a part of the junior program helped to shape him into the person he is today.

“It helps going through this program. It was a life-changing thing,” Derk said. “You have older guys steering you right. It's makes you a better person. I know that. These guys teach you the right ways. Some kids might go out and drink and have a good time. I learned not to from these guys, because if I did I wouldn't be able to go on a fire call.”

Kromel, Derk and all the juniors encourage anyone with an interest in joining the program to attend a training session at the Waterford Fire Hall. These sessions happen every Tuesday night and prospective juniors may join at any time.

“You make a lot of new friends. You learn a lot of things that could save your life — not just in a fire, anywhere,” Case said.

Peter Turcik is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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