Choosing a career is never easy, and many young people do not get the chance to experience a certain field until college. But in some states youth who are interested in firefighting don’t have to wait until they are older to see what it’s all about: They can learn firsthand, right now.
New York state is replete with youth firefighting associations. The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s Youth in the Fire Service website lists more than 300 individual programs in 50 counties. Nassau County alone boasts 28 programs.
How it works
Jerry Presta serves as advisor for East Norwich’s junior program, as vice chairman of FASNY’s youth committee and as an National Volunteer Fire Council advisory board member. He explained that no two youth firefighter programs are exactly alike.
“Many youth programs are open to kids as young as 12 or 13 up to age 17. It’s up to the individual firehouse how young they will go. My program, it’s 12 years old; the next town over from me, it’s 14-year-olds.”
Many past members are now professional firefighters. Third-generation firefighter Zachary DiFronzo was a junior firefighter from age 14 to 18 and now works for the Hicksville, N.Y., department.
“The youth program helped me get familiar with the trucks, how to put on my gear properly, my SCBA,” DiFronzo said.
Ryan Hunt, 14, of Farmingdale, N.Y., joined simply because he “thought it would be cool.” What he ended up gaining goes beyond his initial expectations.
“I’ve learned how to work great as a team and great communication skills. I’ve learned to respect people.” He also learned to use equipment he would never have otherwise dreamed of handling.
“Stuff you see as a kid, you’re like, ‘I’ll never be able to use that.’ Now I’m 14 and using a pressure hose,” he said. Hunt hopes to go into firefighting professionally someday.
The programs also emphasize that firefighting is not just for the guys. Presta commented that some of the most enthusiastic youth program members are girls.
“Sometimes the girls are more serious than the guys. There are firefighting camps for girls only.”
Kelly Hastings, 17, is part of one in Massatequa, N.Y. Hastings’ dad and brother are professional firefighters, and she is now following in their footsteps. Her brother is a former junior firefighter.
East Norwich firefighter Jessica Cody was a junior from age 12 to age 17. She said the youth programs help prepare future firefighters for the professional world.
“It helps teach you what firefighters actually do. It also helps you see if you can handle it. We did training on how to put on a pack and some people didn’t like the way it felt. They only found that out through the junior program.”
Youth firefighters do not actually fight fires. Instead, they focus on training and simulations, with a variety of events to attend, depending on their area.
“We’re looking to train the kids and strengthen and encourage leadership skills,” Presta said.
He pointed out that Nassau County’s program is the only one in the state that has an association just for junior firefighters. That association turns 10 next year and the county is working to have a monument dedicated to the junior firefighters. “It’s a pretty big deal to us,” he added.
Each August for the past six years, youth program representatives from across the state gather at the FASNY annual convention. The students participate in various evolutions like forcible entry, escaping from a window, hose advancement, ladder use including climbing a ladder with tools, proper use of firefighting equipment and mask use. Depending on nearby features they may also practice drafting, or drawing water from a lake or stream, when no fire hydrants are nearby.
The idea is to go through the motions of these and other evolutions, and the kids are not scored on their performance. However, they are still expected to know what they’re doing.
“They are watched carefully to make sure they do everything the correct way,” Presta said.
That’s not too difficult, however, since those who participate tend to be very serious about firefighting.
“Usually the kids that are really serious are the ones that will come up. You don’t usually find kids that say, ‘I don’t have anything else to do.’ You can tell how intense they are. I would say about 98 percent of them are very serious when they come out.” After evolutions, they gather back at the convention center to shop vendors and listen to that year’s keynote speaker.
Typically, anywhere from 40 to 60 youth participate in Youth Day. “When it was on Long Island, we had 103,” Presta said. This year’s FASNY Youth Day is set for Friday, Aug. 21, at the Rensselaer Fire Training Center in Wynantskill, N.Y.
Presta believes that youth firefighter programs have contributed greatly to the profession overall.
“You don’t have 30-, 40-, 50-year-old people joining,” he said. “They have so much going on in their lives. You have to spot that interest when they’re young.”
His program consists of 32 youth who meet twice a month. The program’s captain, a youth firefighter, conducts the proceedings, which usually consist of a quick business meeting followed by training.
“A lot of these kids, if their family is not in the fire service, they would never get introduced to the fire service at all,” he said. “We had one kid join because his friend had joined.”