A firefighter stands before a two story cement building as black smoke and flames billowing from an open window. The sirens of two fire trucks wail in the distance, as he speaks to a group of spectators gathered behind a line of safety tape.
As the "rigs" pull up behind him he draws the crowd's attention to the firefighters who are streaming out and busily setting up their equipment. With their slightly smaller than usual statures, and helmets with first names like Carissa and Victor, these are no ordinary firefighters but Vancouver secondary school students participating in the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services' Youth Outreach Academy.
This is the first year the VFRS has invited students to their training facility at 1330 Chess Street in East Vancouver. The VFRS public education department created the outreach program to promote staff development amongst secondary school students. It was launched with sixteen, male and female students from secondary schools across Vancouver.
The grade 11 and 12 students participated in a week-long training academy to learn basic firefighting skills including CPR, first aid, proper use of safety equipment and SCBA breathing devices and how to safely and effectively extinguish fires. They also assisted firefighters and Holt Renfrew to raise funds for the United Way of Lower Mainland.
On May 21, the final day of the academy, the students performed a practical, firefighting exercise in front of an invited group of parents, siblings, counselors, teachers and supporters. The audience watched in awe as the student firefighters worked with professional firefighters to douse fires set in a two story cement block training building. They also demonstrated how to rescue a person from the fire and how to perform CPR.
City Councillor George Chow was on hand to watch the demonstration. "I was invited by Fire Chief John McKearney to see how the department is spending their training funds."
Chow was pleased with what he observed and said "I think this program is great for youth who seek careers in public safety or law enforcement, especially for youth from my community (Chinese Canadians)."
At the conclusion of the exercise the Fire Chief presented the students with their course completion certificates. He also helped present a giant cheque for $3,005 to the United Way of the Lower Mainland. A few days earlier on May 18 the students wore their firefighter uniforms and solicited donations from the public as a team of VFRS firefighters did ladder runs on a fire truck parked in front of Holt Renfrew on Granville St. The boot drive held by Holt Renfrew and the Vancouver Fire Fighters IAFF Local 18 is part of several fundraising drives the VFRS holds each year.
Gabe Roder, captain and head of public relations and education for the VFRS called the academy a success. "The students demonstrated tremendous teamwork throughout the program. Firefighting is not about competition but is all about working together to obtain goals."
He noted that the students quickly learned the discipline it takes to be a firefighter. "In talking to the parents they noticed a difference with their children," Roder said. As a para-military organization the students were taught drills, including marching skills and how to work together as a team. Besides the discipline the trainers also provided support and encouragement. "We gave them a lot of 'ataboys' and pats on the back," said Roder.
"Firefighters are hands-on people. All the skills we learn take mechanical and motor skills and you have to touch everything to learn how it works," said Roder.
Roder was pleased that four out of the sixteen students were female since the VFRS has only a small number of female firefighters in their ranks. "I anticipate next year we will have no problem finding enough students to participate," said Roder.
Judy Robertson, a counselor at Templeton Secondary School suggested the academy to her student Ashley Lewis. "Ashley had said to me that one of her goals was to work for the VFRS and when this opportunity came along it was perfect."
Ashley's mother Cathie Lewis-Conron was on hand to watch her daughter during the practical exercise on May 21. She snapped photos as her daughter confidently performed CPR on a victim that was carried from the burning building. "Each day Ashley was exhausted and soaking wet from wearing the heavy, insulated gear but she always had a smile on her face," she said.
Ashley, a tall and athletic grade 11 student enjoyed the hands-on experience she received in the academy. "My background in cadets made a difference in my confidence and ability to be a leader during exercises. On day one the instructors told us about the final practical exercise and everything we learned led up to that which was great."
Victor Wong's mother Jeany described her surprise when Victor told her he wanted to attend the academy. The normally shy grade 12 student from Magee Secondary has nine years experience as a sea cadet but the experience he gained in the Youth Academy has made a visible difference. "It is amazing, he is more confident," Wong said. Victor is now considering firefighting as a career. "I enjoyed everything about the program," Victor said.
Angela Yang, an athletic grade 11 student from David Thompson said that the academy exceeded all her expectations. "It was a great educational opportunity. We learned a lot about firefighting and it gave us an insight into what it takes to do this job. It was exciting to actually go into a burning building and learn how to properly use all the equipment."
Like Victor, Angela had experience in Navy league cadets which prepared her for the discipline needed to work as a team. "On the first day I was unsure about everything. I always liked firefighting but had no idea of what was involved. After this I would consider a career in the fire service."
With all the positive feedback the VFRS Youth Outreach Academy has received it is hoped it will return next year to introduce a career in firefighting to more secondary school students.
For more information on the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services go to their website.