Brandon teens step into role as cadet firefighters

Jill Meier

Journal editor

 

“It felt like the second-best thing to a birthday.”

Those are the words that 17-year-old Elsa Davis used to describe how she felt the very first time she slipped into official fire-fighting gear.

Davis is one of two Brandon teens who are learning the art of fire-fighting – volunteer style.

Earlier this year, the Brandon Fire Department announced their intent to launch a cadet program. They introduced the idea to local teens through the daily announcements at Brandon Valley High School, and received initial interest from 30 students.

“We thought this would be something good to get the younger generation in, showing them volunteering and giving back to the community,” said Ryan Greene, first assistant chief and one of four cadet program coordinators.

The cadet firefighter program is not a new idea. Tea Fire is now in its 12th year, according to Rob Maier, a former Tea firefighter. Maier, who signed on with the Brandon department nearly five years ago, said the main purpose of the program is to teach the cadets the job of fighting fires.

“That’s the hope,” Maier said, “is that someday they will decide that this might be a career for them. Around this state alone, there’s a huge shortage of volunteer firefighters. People want to be paid, but being a volunteer is different. We do the same job, we just don’t get paid for it.”

Maier said cadets – who must be at least 16 years of age – do everything adult firefighters do up to the point of actually going into a live fire.

“We have them roll hose, get hose, get tools,” he said. “They do come out on fires with us, but they can’t be in the hot zone.”

Davis and Sarah Leman, 16, who is an incoming sophomore at Brandon Valley High School, are the first cadets to join Brandon’s volunteer fire department. Davis said the opportunity was a natural fit for her, as her career interest lies in “something medical.” 

“EMS is more my realm,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was thinking something medical and then the school offered an EMT program, so I took that and that’s kind of something that I fell in love with.”

After spying the opportunity to be a cadet for the local fire department, Davis said, “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! That’s me for sure, so I might as well do that, too!’” 

Leman’s path to the cadet program was inspired by a personal experience.

“As a kid, I burnt my hand in a fire really bad and since then I knew I wanted to be able to fight fires,” she said. “I had a lot of influence from my grandpa, who was an EMT and firefighter (in Lester, Iowa), so it was kind of in the family.”

Although the cadet program drew interest from 30 students, Greene said five students applied. One student lived outside of the required five-mile radius and two others determined they “were too busy.”

Parents of cadets also have to give their blessing to the idea. Leman’s parents, she said, were not initially sold on the program. 

“I convinced them to at least come to the meeting,” she said. “They thought we were going to be in the fire, but once they came here, they found out it’s not so bad.”

Davis’ parents, however, knew this is a career path their daughter wants to follow.

“This is right where she is anyway, so we might as well let her,” was her parent’s opinion, Davis said.

Over the last dozen years, Tea Fire’s cadet program has seen great success, Maier said, noting they have eight to nine volunteer cadets “at any given time.”

“It started as easy as them coming out to a scene and giving people water while we’re doing rehab, stuff like that, but it develops and they start knowing their roles on the department and they start thinking for themselves, getting out there and doing things, reading where we need help,” he said. “So yeah, they’ll end up rolling hose and getting tools and laying out things, watching. We always have to have a perimeter where everybody knows where the safety zones are, and they always stay on the outside of that so they know where they are and we know where they are.”

The cadets will receive the same training that every volunteer firefighter receives, Maier said.

“It’s tapered to fit them, but initially it’s the same,” he said. 

And just as it is for firefighters, training will be an ongoing process. 

“He started 25 years ago,” Maier says, acknowledging Greene, “and he’s still taking classes. I started doing this eight, nine years ago, and I’m still going through classes. It’s an ongoing thing always, but their initial class, they’ll go through all the Firefighter 1 and 2 stuff. … They’ll know everything they need to know and then it will be ongoing all the time.”

Cadets, however, won’t answer every call. If a text notification comes in during the school day or during their involvement with sports or other school-related activities, cadets will not respond.

“They have instruction that they won’t be attending anything during their normal duties – school, whatnot – but if it’s after school, then they are free to go,” Maier said, adding cadets must also adhere to a nighttime curfew.

“We’re all committed to this as much as we can be, but everybody has a life, too,” Maier said. “Your family is more important. This is extra and this is hopefully something that a lot of people can commit to enough to prioritize it in a good manner. Your family is important and every once in a while, this will override it a little bit, but mostly your family should be more important.”

Both Davis and Leman have yet to receive their helmets. Brandon Fire Chief Robert Dykstra said they want to issue them helmets that earmark them as a “cadet, so we know on scene what assignments we can give them, similar to our probationary firefighters,” Dykstra said.

Adds Greene: “We need to identify them as a little bit different than our regular guys, so if we end up at a big scene, say we have Valley Springs and Split Rock there, they don’t think that they can go interior.”

Coming in, both Davis and Leman say they have few fears. Leman does admit to fears of “not knowing where something is.”

Davis, however, quickly calms that fear.

“There’s a simple solution to that. Everyone here is nice and willing to let you learn, so if you have an issue, you just say, ‘Hey, I don’t know where this is at’ and they’re going to tell you,” she said.

As for the cadet advisors, Maier said his only fear is the program doesn’t come together as they envi-sioned.

“My fear right now is that it’s going to be a slow go at first to get everybody where they need to be and understand their roles,” he said.

Dykstra hopes the cadet program sparks an interest with future volunteers.

“Whether they go into this in the volunteer side or career side or anything in the medical or respond-er side – and it doesn’t even have to be with Brandon – if there’s an interest there and we helped in any way, then it’s a win to me,” he said. “It will teach them the chain of command and how that works. It’s just good to see that excitement.”

Greene said Brandon volunteers approached Tea Fire more than five years ago to learn more about their cadet program. Maier was one of their contacts there.

“But things didn’t line up where we could all get together and continue to talk about it,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility for a department to have younger people here that we have to watch out for. All in all, it’s a great thing to have; it just took a while.”

Greene said the intent is to continue to grow the cadet program, and they will reopen the application process next March.

“The goal is the more experience they (Davis and Leman) get, the more things they’ll get to do,” Greene said. “And when a new group comes in, these two will over-shadow them.”

Neither Greene or Maier were surprised the department’s first two cadets are females.

 “Rob told me that Tea had really good luck with females,” Green said.

Adds Maier, “The female presence there was a lot higher and it was more authoritative. I think out of the last four (cadet) chiefs – because they play their roles the same as we do on our normal depart-ment – three have been females, and they did really well.”

Through his experience with Tea Fire’s cadet program, Maier said teens seem to be quick learners.

“I didn’t start firefighting until I was 30-something, and if I had known about it earlier, I would’ve started way earlier,” he said. “I mean, I knew about firefighters, I just didn’t know that you could go into it. It seems like it’s something that’s out of your realm until somebody invites you to come in.” 

Along with learning the ins and outs of fighting fires, cadets will attend the department’s first Monday of the month meeting and will train on Thursday evenings. They would have the potential to attend three to four meetings each month.

The Brandon department has put a limit of eight cadets that will be advised by Greene, Maier, Mike Reinke and Michael Gross.

“The cadets are welcome to come to any of the trainings we have, like EMT. It will be a good learn-ing experience, regardless if they move onto something else after school. You can’t take this knowledge away, and in my opinion, you guys are way above anyone else at the school by knowing how the firefighting side will work. It takes time and Elsa wants to learn it all in a day,” says Maier.

As for Davis, learning the skills to fight fires now is something she looks to use in her future.

“I want to move on to paramedic and hopefully stay with them and help with future cadets,” she said. 

With more time yet to decide her career path, Leman is testing the waters to see if this could be her passion.

“I’m hoping it is,” she said. “I guess I’m just trying to find out.”

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