Jess Clancy became a Harford County firefighter cadet because she wants to help people; Blake Godwin joined because his brother is part of a volunteer fire company; Zack Radcliffe joined at the encouragement of Blake and because he thought "it would be cool to be able help someone out every day."
"I thought it would look good on college applications, and now I've learned to love it," cadet Sam Queen said.
All four youths are part of the Harford County Cadet Program, a joint effort of the county's Volunteer Fire & EMS Association and the public schools to provide professional firefighter, EMS and rescue training for high school students interested in a career in public safety.
Student cadets must be at least 16 years old, and the majority are high school seniors. Seniors get priority in being selected for cadet classes, but applicants in lower grades can participate if space is available, according to Steve Cox, a cadet coordinator.
Students train in the classroom and in the field, where they get to work with firefighting gear and ride fire trucks.
An Aegis reporter and photographer witnessed a field training session earlier this month at a building owned by the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, next to its Forest Hill substation on East Jarrettsville Road.
The brick building, which the fire company recently acquired, will be used for training and potentially storage, according to Rich Gardiner, a spokesperson for the Fire & EMS Association and a member of Bel Air.
The four cadets, who are members of Bel Air, too, were led by Bel Air fire Sgt. Todd Schlossnagle — they worked in full firefighter turnout gear, including helmets, heavy coats and SCBA masks.
The team took a 35-foot metal ladder off a ladder truck, leaned it against the building and climbed to the top.
It took four members of the group to put up the heavy ladder and keep it steady.
The cadets then climbed the tower on the fire truck up to the roof and used a metal "parapet ladder" to get from the tower bucket to the roof.
For the final exercise, the cadets donned their masks and respirators, took hose line from a fire engine, sprayed water, then worked together to move the hose inside the building, up a set of stairs and bring the nozzle to bear on flames they pretended were consuming the second story of the structure.
"They did well; they worked great as a team," Schlossnagle said after the training — he noted the 35-foot metal ladder is one of the largest in Bel Air's inventory.
Schlossnagle, 27, has been part of the fire company since he was 16 years old, and he works with cadets whenever he can.
"They're learning valuable skills... hopefully, we're teaching them the positive habits instead of the bad habits," he said.
He noted the cadet program helps prepare the young people to be leaders within the fire company.
"The goal is for them to be mentors for the new membership that comes in," Schlossnagle said.
Cox asked each cadet to assess his or her performance after the training, to discuss what could have been improved and where they excelled.
"I think we did pretty good with that [35-foot] ladder, " Jess said. "That was a pretty big ladder, and we did it."
Blake said he thought communication could have been better on the hose exercise, as he did not know a fellow cadet was having a problem with his air mask until the sergeant informed them.
He said later in the conversation that he was being "picky" about communication issues, but Cox assured him he was not.
"We all have to work on communication," Cox said.
Seven students, who are members of various fire companies, are scheduled to complete this year's cadet class. Association officials are taking applications for next year's program.
The deadline to apply is April 30, and the program begins Sept. 5, the first day of the 2017-2018 school year for Harford County Public Schools, according to Rhonda Hinch, another cadet coordinator.
Applications are available through school counseling offices or online at http://www.hcvfa.org, according to Hinch.
Students must have joined a fire company before the cadet program starts on the first day of school, and they must be at least 16 years old to join a company.
Applicants must complete the majority of their high school graduation requirements before they apply, and they must get approvals from counseling staff, teachers and parents. They must also write an essay, Hinch said.
Cadets spend part of their day in school and part of the day in training. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are set aside for field training, and Tuesdays and Thursday are for classroom work at a training center in Edgewood.
Classes are taught by instructors affiliated with the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, or MFRI.
Cadets take course offerings such as Firefighter 1 (basic firefighting), Firefighter 2 (advanced firefighting), HAZMAT operations and emergency medical responder, according to Hinch.
Completing the program means the cadets are certified firefighters, and they can apply for positions in departments in the area, according to Hinch.
"This is a career-building program for our students," she said.
The four cadets, who are high school seniors, plan to have careers in public safety.
Jess, 17, lives in Bel Air and attends Harford Technical High School. She plans to study fire science at Cecil College in Cecil County, and she wants to be either a firefighter, EMS worker, police officer or emergency dispatcher.
"It's nice to be in a volunteer fire department, because it opens a lot of doors for you," she said.
Blake, 18, lives in Churchville, and he also attends Harford Tech. He said he is waiting to hear back from some colleges about whether he has been accepted. He wants to be either a paid firefighter or a police officer.
Sam, 18, lives in Bel Air and he attends Bel Air High School. He will attend Mercy College in New York, and he plans to volunteer with a local fire company.
Zack, 18, lives in Abingdon and attends Bel Air High School. He has been accepted by the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he will study either emergency management or marine transportation. He wants to be either a paid firefighter or a state trooper.
"I always wanted to be able to help someone out every day," Zack said.
What they can and can't do
The high school cadets can take part in calls for service by helping first responders at the scene of an emergency.
"One of the things we can do is throw ladders, because they're really important in case something goes wrong or you need to get in through a window," Jess said.
They cannot, however, attack a fire when it is raging, as cadets cannot be exposed to "hazardous conditions," Cox said. Fire company members younger than 18 cannot work in hazardous environments, in accordance with state law, he noted.
They can go into a structure after the fire is under control and help on salvage operations.
"We just get anything that could be a threat to [start] more fire out of the building," Zack said.
Their cadet training, which includes extinguishing fires during controlled burns, prepares them for the real thing, according to Cox.
"I really like fire and going in [when] it's all smoky and having the [air] bottle on and attacking the fire," Blake said.
They can generally take on those situations when they turn 18 and become regular firefighters in Harford County, according to Cox.
Some fire companies, such as Bel Air, require cadets to finish the program and graduate from high school before they become regular firefighters, even if they are 18, according to Cox.
Other duties for the cadets include stretching hand lines, or deploying hoses, to "make sure everything's good to go so when [firefighters] go in they have enough line," Blake said.
"You're allowed to hit the hydrant and get water to the fire," Sam added.
This year's cadet class started with nine students, according to Cox, but two have dropped out, including one because of injuries.
Cox noted the safety risk involved in training and on calls for service.
"We do everything that we possibly can to ensure safety," Cox said. "We teach them the safest way to do things."
He stressed fire service officials meet with parents of the cadets, and they want to ensure parents are on board.
He noted the cadets gain skills they can use with their fire companies, at home or in their community to help someone who has been hurt.
Jess and Zack said their favorite parts of training involved cutting open wrecked vehicles — Zack said he likes "all the practical stuff," such as cutting vehicles and controlled burns.
"I personally just like getting on the fire truck and running lights and sirens to the scene, to go really fast, and it's really loud," Sam said.