Through the cadet program in Harford County, Josh Lorenzo said he learned the responsibility and leadership needed to become a volunteer firefighter.
"It builds character," said Lorenzo, a recent graduate of the cadet program in Edgewood who comes from a family of firefighters. "You have to work as a team and to learn to trust people more."
Lorenzo is one of six graduates of the Fire and EMS Rescue Cadet program at Harford County high schools last year. Two years ago, the county government and the volunteer fire association collaborated to create a program in Harford County to increase the number of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
"Eighty percent of firefighters in the country are volunteer, and in Harford County it's 100 percent volunteer," said Walter Kerr, president of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association.
Recruiting is under way for next year's class. In its first year, the program had 12 students, but enrollment fell to six last year. To expand the program, Kerr said, the county has stepped up recruiting efforts by working more closely with the schools and the community.
"We have learned we have to go out and market to get the best people," Kerr said.
Frank Mezzanotte, supervisor of technical education and technical programs for Harford County, said fire officials increased marketing to students by distributing pamphlets during lunch, having speakers from the fire companies and posting fliers.
In addition to recruiting more volunteers, new classes focused only on emergency medical technician skills will be offered in the fall. "It is for students that like the medical part but don't like to climb ladders," Kerr said.
The program is offered to high school seniors in all Harford County schools. Students must apply during their junior year and join their local fire department for the program.
The only other requirement is that participants be physically fit. "You have to be able to wear turnout gear, which can weigh from 45 to 75 pounds," said Ruth Hoskins, co-chairwoman of the program.
Students take classes at their high schools in the morning and spend afternoons attending classes at a fire company and learning hands-on applications at Northeast Regional Training Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
There are two tracks to the program: firefighting and EMT-only. The classes are taught by instructors from the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, which is part of University of Maryland.
The fire track teaches students medical skills, basic rescue skills and training in extinguishing fires in a variety of situations. The medical track teaches students to administer emergency medical services and to take an active role in controlling emergency situations, said Susan Shell, regional coordinator for the Northeast Regional Training Center.
The yearlong program allows students to gain responsibility and learn important skills, Kerr said. "We are giving them the basic foundation" from which students can opt to stay in the area or choose from a wide array of careers, Kerr said.
Students who complete the program are state-certified and eligible for college credit. After four years of being a volunteer firefighter or an EMT, they are eligible for a state income tax incentive. They have the opportunity to become nationally certified firefighters and EMTs, and if they remain in the company for more than 25 years, they receive a pension.
Lorenzo attends the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County and is studying arson investigation. He works full time and continues to volunteer with the rest of his family at the Abingdon Volunteer Fire Company, Station No. 4.
Lorenzo said he is happy to help other people daily. "I feel I am getting a career and education that will last me a lifetime," he said.