Life as a Junior Firefighter Teaches Lessons Not Found in School

Jul 20, 2018

Education often continues outside of the school environment, and students can take the initiative to continue their learning in something they enjoy. 

In a previous piece I had contributed to Raise Your Voice!, I talked about students being required to take part in community service for high school credit. I wrote about how someone interested in working with animals might volunteer at a local animal shelter, someone interested in the medical field could volunteer in a hospital setting, and someone interested in helping the overall community could help organize community events or volunteer in soup kitchens. In this piece I’d like to talk a little bit more about being a junior firefighter at North Lakes Fire & Rescue.

I joined North Lakes in late 2015 when I was fourteen. I had recently moved to Northern Maine at the time and I needed to get myself into something productive. When I lived in Massachusetts, I had intended to join an Explorer program for teens who had interest in being firefighters, police officers, or EMTs. At the time I wasn’t in the correct age group to join so all I could do was wait. During the move it had sunk in that I wouldn’t be able to do the program since it would be over 450 miles away, and the next nearest program was still a little bit of a distance away, so I was a little disappointed about it. 

My mother is a child educator. She has always worked as a staff member in an educational environment, and at one point even owned her own daycare. She knew that she needed to renew her CPR and first aid certification so the first place she looked to was our local fire department, since it is a common setting to get something like that done. It just so happened when she made the call to inquire about any CPR courses, there was a separate training about first aid going on that exact night she called. She also knew of my desire to be in a firefighting setting and asked if I could come along as well. They were more than happy to take in a new junior firefighter. 

I’ve been with North Lakes for almost three years and I am constantly learning something new. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far: 

There are always opportunities to learn and grow.

Just by simply attending regular trainings most of the time there is something new brought to the table. One of our members volunteered to take advantage of a class being taught in Portland and became an Ice Water Rescue Instructor for North Lakes Fire. He is able to take what he has learned and bring it back here and teach it to the rest of us. We now get to have trainings that we didn’t have before. He may not be a captain, lieutenant, or chief, but he gets to run the trainings about ice water rescue and be the leader and show everyone how it’s done. 

When I open my email I almost always have something new in my inbox from Chief Darren Woods. A pretty good chunk of these emails involve opportunities to further our knowledge outside of our department. For example, there would be emails about HazMat (Hazardous Materials) trainings, EMT courses, Basic Fire School, Basic Fire Officer, or Firefighter I & II. With our members taking these courses they are all able to learn something that the rest of us may not necessarily know and share it to the group. 

If you don't ask questions you don't learn anything.

You're not expected to know it all, and pretending to know everything makes someone dangerous.

Most people who are in higher ranks can’t stress this enough. They are not mind readers. They can’t see whether or not someone understands something. If you don’t speak up and get the necessary clarification, then you won’t understand. Everyone would rather you ask questions because that way you’ll know what to do later on in a real emergency situation. This is why we have to make the time count during trainings. It’s the time to make mistakes because they can be fixed, and it’s also the time to ask questions because people are at the ready to answer them. 

No matter your rank, you're equally as important as anyone else.

When I first became a junior firefighter I always thought that I wouldn’t be an important part of the team, that since I’m not an adult and I don’t know much, then I wouldn’t play as important a role as others. This was quickly dispelled by most if not all of the other members of the department. 

I’ve been told that there is always a job to be done (which is very true) and that hands are always needed in just about any given situation. Even juniors are given the opportunity to find their groove and find where they’d like to be. 

For example, I’ve really come to know how to set up an air pack. This pack is what is worn by the firefighters who go into burning buildings, respond to chemical incidents, and put out car fires. Most of the guys have seen me put in the time to learn how to properly check and maintain an air pack so I generally stick in the rehab unit where I can replace the air bottles, change pack batteries, and refill the empty bottles. In the rehab part of a training I can also sit back and keep an eye on everyone to make sure everyone is drinking plenty of water and to make sure that no one is pushing themselves too hard. 

Even though I’m a junior firefighter, I get to play a pretty important role by making sure everyone has what they need (which includes breathable air). The moral of the story: whether you’re a junior firefighter, safety officer, lieutenant, captain, or chief, everything is important for smooth operations. 

A seasoned firefighter always has good stories to tell - always listen to them.

There is always an important lesson to be learned within these stories, and the stories they share are good for teachable moments and learning purposes. During Basic Fire School this past year in 2018, stories about topics were passed back and forth to the group to get points across about how dangerous some situations can really be. They have seen and been through enough situations and realized what may have been done right and what also may have been done wrong, and they share these stories to keep people from having to live and learn the hard way. 

The true meaning of teamwork.

Brody Albert was also a junior firefighter with North Lakes Fire for over two years. He has recently moved on to continue his education in the field. I asked him what he felt the biggest thing he learned while being a junior firefighter was. He said: “Teamwork is not a job where you can do it on your own. Everybody needs to work together and be on the same page to make things work. It takes two to tango!” 

Everyone really does need to work together to keep running as one. 

The small stuff doesn't go unnoticed.

It’s amazing how every member is doing everything in their power to be helpful and represent the department with pride. By taking the extra time to clean up and organize, it becomes beneficial for everyone. This also plays a big role in the safety of everyone around us. By people putting in the extra time and effort, someone may notice that something is not quite right, broken, or needs maintenance. By noticing these types of things, the items will get taken care of as quick as possible before an emergency, and since every member is notified we will all know what is going on with the equipment at all times. This leaves us time to plan things out if we don’t have something. For example, if someone noticed a particular truck wasn’t running correctly, everyone would be notified about what is going on with the vehicle so we can plan usage of other apparatus accordingly until the original vehicle is back in service. 

We always need do our best even when we think no one is around. I found a Facebook post made by Chief Woods telling everyone how proud he was of everyone’s combined efforts (even on the weekends) to keep the department running as a whole. The post really speaks for itself on this one. 

“When you are a small department Chief, you spend a lot of your time thinking of ways to inspire your people to keep things moving forward. But, then there are times when you find that your people are in fact inspiring you. Driving by a station on a Friday night and seeing one of the guys doing truck maintenance on his own, then going by on Saturday and seeing another guy cleaning up the rescue takes the combined effort of a great group to make a volunteer fire Department work, and I’m proud of all of them.” 

Being with everyone at North Lakes, I feel like I am learning more about things that I care about and I feel as though I can be more engaged in something I love to do. 

School itself can’t necessarily do that and accommodate every student in this aspect because sometimes we have to be taught things that we don’t really care for. I truly believe that being at the fire department I have gained more knowledge necessary for the careers I want to pursue. I now know that education isn’t strictly set to the school environment. There is something out there for everyone who is willing to pursue it. 

Amber Sandstrom, a student at Fort Kent Community High School, is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice.