At School: High school class trains tomorrow's firefighters

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Shouts of frustration and excitement mingled with Highlands High School teacher Mike Krzeminski's booming voice across the classroom.

"Lives are on the line," he shouted to about 17 students.

Finally, junior Samantha Kovach stood up as her classmates groaned in disappointment around her.

"We have a winner!"

The prize: five extra credit points. The task: tying 10 figure 8 knots on deadline.

For two 40-minute periods a day, Mr. Krzeminski teaches elective classes on entry level fire and emergency response techniques. The class sizes are fairly intimate, with 17 students in one and 18 in the other. The program started in 2008, under the sponsorship of the Highlands Emergency Services Alliance, which consists of eight volunteer fire departments in the area.

He said the program was designed to help supplement the shortage of volunteer firefighters in the area, saying their ranks have dwindled by more than 60 percent over the last decade.

Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Edward Mann said the shortage is not just local, but statewide. A study in the mid-1970s showed more than 300,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. By the late '90s, the number dropped to 70,000 and is continuing to fall.

"When I was a youngster growing up, we had all the businessmen downtown involved in the fire department," Mr. Mann said. "So when the fire whistle blew, a lot of the businesses shut down so to go answer the call."

While there are other fire training programs at public and vocational schools throughout the state, the Highlands program provides a necessary service to the region, Mr. Krzeminski said. Interested students get an opportunity to receive hands-on career training during the school day.

Highlands students can earn certificates from the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy after completing each level of training. His classes cover levels 1 and 2 of the fire training curriculum. Students even have the opportunity to put out small fires in the school parking lot at the end of the spring semester in a lesson on how to attack different fuels.

Level 1 consists of entry level training, with basic history and theory, as well as an overview of how the department operates. Level 2 students begin to learn specific tasks, including non-suppression activities. Level 3 requires exterior fire ground operating skills, while Level 4 focuses on hazardous materials and first responder training, the last step to becoming an interior firefighter.

To pass Level 4, one of the requirements is to undergo what is called a live burn, a timed test where applicants must put on gear and go into a burning building to perform exercises.

This day's lesson was knot-tying. While the lesson was lightened with a fun competition among classmates, Mr. Krzeminski emphasized the importance of being skilled and swift when out in the field.

"If we're tying a knot so you can pass an ax over your head to the roof of a building, do you think I want it done quickly, or I want it done accurately?" he asked the class.

The answer was both.

"We joke around and we have fun, but I tell them all the time that this is adult training that they're getting, which is rare in high school," Mr. Krzeminski said. "Some of us lose our lives every year doing this business. I know this reality, so to try to get that through to another student is a huge challenge."

Senior Sean Frantz already understands that reality. Three generations of firemen at Hilltop Hose Company in Harrison precede him, and he has passed two of four levels of tests required to become a certified firefighter.

He's also lost an uncle in the line of duty.

"It's our family thing, firefighting," he said. "It's also helped me in my own life. If you want to do something, go out and do it. Don't just wait for other people to go do it."

He said he's known he was going to be a firefighter his entire life, so it's convenient to receive the necessary training as part of his overall education.

Sean has taken the class for the past two years. He also volunteers with Hilltop Hose in the afternoons and on weekends and has gone out on emergency calls with members of the company.

"The local fire chiefs and companies have been extremely supportive," Mr. Krzeminski said. "They realize that a lot of people who are sitting in my class are future members and are the future of their companies."

For Samantha, the fire service class is more than just an elective. It's a training ground.

She has been a member of the Girl Scouts since kindergarten. The skills she obtained over the years have helped prepare her for the basics of the class, she said, and also helped her win the day's knot-tying competition. Over the summer, she plans to take the third level of state certification tests.

"You have to be willing to try new things, and discipline is a big thing," Samantha said. "You have to be able to follow instructions in class, or someone can get seriously hurt when you're out on a call."

Mr. Krzeminski said nothing makes him prouder than seeing his current and former students volunteering while he's out on emergency calls.

"It's neat to watch them going from children to being adults, and that happens very quickly on the fire ground."

Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889.

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