Training the firefighters of tomorrow – junior firefighters program completes successful first year

·5 min read

GUYSBOROUGH – Volunteers are the heart of the community. That’s a commonly heard message when the topic of volunteerism arises, but volunteers are also the safeguards of the community. This is especially true when it comes to our volunteer firefighters — and the next generation of firefighters.

There are approximately 6,000 volunteer firefighters in Nova Scotia and recruitment has been a longstanding challenge in many rural communities. The Antigonish County Volunteer Fire Department is taking proactive steps to ensure the well of new volunteers never goes dry.

The Antigonish County Junior Firefighters program began this past September and wrapped up its inaugural year earlier this month. The program brought youth between the ages of 14 and 18 together to learn the skills required to move forward to complete a Level 1 Firefighter course.

The Journal spoke with Adrian Van de Sande, a captain in the Antigonish County Volunteer Fire Department, and Bethany Pelley, a junior firefighter, about the program last week.

The Antigonish Volunteer Fire Department — which has stations on Beech Hill Rd. in Antigonish, in James River, Pleasant Valley and Gaspereau Lake — did not set out to reinvent the wheel when they decided to start a junior firefighter program, but to adopt the good practice they’d seen in other departments across the province.

“We thought it would be a great idea for recruitment,” Van de Sande said, adding, “The idea of the program was, a lot of our members in the regular fire department are getting up [in age], between 40 to 60 years old. We need some new, fresh, young faces in the department … it’s a little nerve wracking just throwing young people into this [firefighting], so we wanted to train them a little bit. The end goal is to get new, fresh faces into our department before we see our older members retire.”

The department was “quite pleased” with the initial response and participation in the first year of the program, said Van de Sande, with six youth participating. And with applications already coming in for next year’s program, the number of participants, “looks like it’s going to at least double,” he said.

And what do junior firefighters do?

Van de Sande said, “We take four years, and we slowly train them on all the skills that they will need to get their Level 1 Firefighting course. They do things like fire control, fire behaviour, they learn knots, how to do tarps. They learn a little bit about extraction. Over the four years they’re going to do a little bit of everything. They will be first aid and MFR (Medical First Responder) trained.”

Asked for his impression of the youth volunteers, Van de Sande, whose been a volunteer firefighter for eight years, said, “I am totally surprised by how well they take this in and how they can take it from the classroom and put it into practice. When I started this, I thought, ‘Okay, they’re going to be young, they’re not going to be into this …but I was completely wrong. They are the most energetic, well-rounded group of kids I’ve ever worked with. It’s hard to believe how much they’ve learned in such a short time. We’re very pleased with the program for sure.”

Bethany Pelley, a student at Dr. John Hugh Gillis High School in Antigonish, said she’d heard about the program from her father, who is a volunteer firefighter in the Antigonish County department. She decided to join the program because, “It sounded interesting, and I wanted to get more involved and learn more about what they [firefighters] do.”

As could be expected, not everything came easily to the youth firefighters, Pelley said, “Definitely tying ropes and climbing ladders was probably the hardest for me,” but, she added, “The group that we had was a really good group and it made us all come closer together. The instructors were really good to us too.”

And, while there are some difficult tasks involved in the program, Pelley said there were fun times as well. “One of the most fun things was when we were blindfolded, and we had all the gear on, and they had an obstacle course for us, and we had to go through in the dark and get a dummy.”

Other hands-on skills activities Pelley recalls include setting pallets on fire, “and then putting them out with the fire extinguishers … [and] we pulled our chainsaws up ladders so that we knew what it was like to send tools up and down the ladder.”

Pelley said she’ll definitely be back next year when the program resumes and plans to take her Level 1 Firefighter training once she’s 18. She’d recommend the program to other youth and sees the importance of the program in recruiting the volunteer firefighters of tomorrow.

While Pelley has enjoyed many aspects of the program, she said the biggest benefit she got from participating in the junior firefighter program was meeting new people. “Before I joined the fire department, I didn’t really know any of the other people that were in it. We became a lot closer, and we are kind of like family now.”

The Antigonish County Junior Firefighters program is accepting applications from youth ages 14 to 18, from Antigonish County and surrounding areas, until Tuesday, August 30. For more information visit the program’s Facebook page or email ACVFDJR@gmail.com.

Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal

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