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High school firefighter course to begin next year

Next year, juniors and seniors at Pagosa Springs High School and Archuleta County High School will have an opportunity to train as firefighters and, if they complete the course, finish with a Firefighter I certification.

Conducted in conjunction with the Pagosa Fire Protection District and the Archuleta School District 50 Joint, the course begins in the fall and will, hopefully, graduate young men and women prepared to keep county residents safe in any number of emergencies.

“The reason we’re doing this is twofold,” said PFPD Chief Ron Thompson. “Number one, selfishly, we’re trying to generate more volunteers with kids coming out of high school ready to assist in all aspects of firefighting. They’re young, able bodied and strong. But, number two, we’re trying to prepare them for life.”

Thompson explained that the training would give the students a foundation in teamwork and leadership. “They’ll understand discipline and the chain of command,” he added, “and that will help them in any career field they pursue.”

School district Assistant Superintendent Linda Reed explained that the idea for the program arose after a student at the Pirate Achievement Center (an alternative educational program at PSHS) elected to train as a firefighter. That experience was so positive for the student, the district decided to expand and formalize the program.

Bringing in the PFPD to help build the program and determine the curriculum, the school district also enlisted career technical education teacher Becky Guilliams along with Chrys Figliolino for the School-to-Work program to move the program beyond just training and into a more educational milieu.

“They helped us find the relevant connection between school and work,” Reed said.

Starting in the fall, the school district will begin, with PFPD firefighters assisting, instructing students in the two-semester firefighting program. Several students “tried out” for the program last month, undergoing a series of physically strenuous exercises to test the student’s ability to withstand the rigors demanded from a firefighter. Of the 16 students who tried out, 13 were found eligible because of their age. Of those eligible, 10 will be selected to participate in the program.

According to Thompson, the students will train to meet requirements for the National Firefighters Protection Association, as well as the National Wildland Coordinators Group.

“The students are using the same curriculum as we use for our volunteer and career firefighters,” Thompson said.

“We’ll try to give them experience in every aspect of firefighting,” Thompson said. Included in that experience would be all aspects of internal and external fires, how to load and pull fire hoses, training to learn to use every piece of equipment, testing hoses and fire hydrants, along with other pieces of equipment which, according to Thompson, are regularly tested to ensure functionality and reliability.

“The kids will also train and certify as wildland firefighters,” Thompson said, adding that the training is particularly demanding as the students experience wildland fires under all kinds of conditions, learn to bivouac and deal with the physical strain of fighting fires in rough terrain.

Funding for the program is coming from a number of sources (although both Reed and Thompson stressed that private donations would be welcomed to help offset the expense of the program). Each uniform costs about $2,000 (including boots, hats and gloves), while each self-contained breathing apparatus (necessary for entering interior fires and in many wild land fire fighting situations) runs about $6,000 per unit. While the program has secured funding from Hughes Foundation, as well as the Southwest Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), the program will also pursue alternate sources of funding, including fund-raising activities and soliciting private donations.

With sufficient funding, the school district and PFPD hope to link the program to local community colleges, giving students college credit.

“I think there’s a lot of possibility as far as partnerships with other programs,” Reed said.

Reed continued, “We’re looking at the possibility of a dual enrollment with Southwest Community College so the kids can get credit towards an Associates Degree in an Applied Fire Sciences program.”

In fact, Thompson said both districts had met with representatives from Pueblo Community College last week and those talks, “were very encouraging.”

While some Pagosa Springs High School students will be leaving for college over the summer and while others will struggle to find a job in a currently unforgiving unemployment climate, at least next year a fortunate few will have their future set as they pursue a career as first responders — benefiting themselves and the county as a whole.

jim@pagosasun.com