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Teens Join New Fire Program

First class of cadet-interns look for medical experience, while department hopes for community foothold.

July10, 2002 - They won’t be riding fire trucks, but the first students joining the Fire Department’s cadet-intern program weren’t discouraged by the fact.

On Monday, the group of 13 high school students and recent graduates became the first cadet-interns in the Fire Department’s pilot program, a cooperative effort run along with Arlington Public Schools and the Arlington Career Center.

Two years in the making, the year-long program will offer the 13 teens a chance to experience work in many of the department’s five agencies. That means they’ll spend time over the next year teaching fire prevention to children, conducting tests for firefighter trainees at the firefighting academy, said Fire Chief Ed Plaugher, and most importantly, helping to keep the fire department’s 10 fire stations in top running order.

"You’re going to know what every crack and corner of them look like," Plaugher said. "A lot goes on that you don’t usually see, to keep firefighters and the community safe."

That means working with the Bomb Squad, Hazmat team, training on the Jaws of Life that the trucks carry and the breathing apparatus that firefighters wear into combat.

It did not mean an opportunity to ride along on fire runs, though, for safety’s sake. "We’re not allowed to take you into firefighting situations," Plaugher said.

<b>THAT WAS FINE</b> with many of the interns. They came to the program from around the county – three from Wakefield, two from Yorktown, six from Washington-Lee, and one each from the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program and George Mason High School in Falls Church.

But many shared a motivation for joining the program: they had taken the emergency medical technician training course at the Career Center, and wanted to learn more about Arlington’s paramedics, employed by the Fire Department.

"I want to go into the medical field," said Bessie Guevara, 16, who will be a senior next year at Washington-Lee. "I wanted to find a job that would lead to that. This is good, because I want to be an EMT during college."

Marcus Drucker, 16, another cadet-intern from Washington-Lee, agreed. "I want to become a paramedic," he said. "This is the best I can do right now, until I turn 18."

Whatever brings the teens into the program is fine, Plaugher said. The aim is to increase the number of Arlington graduates who know what’s going on in the fire department, and to get them to consider the department as a possible career.

As an example, he held up the history of Assistant Chief Shawn Kelley. "Many years ago, there was a young man who spent his afternoons hanging around the fire department," Plaugher told the teens and their families. "Those firefighters made him study, made him do his homework, and that experience rubbed off."

Without the time at the stations, Kelley might never have considered the fire department, and Plaugher hopes to repeat the experience with the new class of interns.

"Think of 13 interns for 10 years, that’s nearly 150 families. We can reach 300, 400 people that way," he said. "If I talk about the career, it can sound hokey. But if you live it, or if your friend’s lived it, it’s not hokey at all."

<b>SEEING THE INNER</b> workings of the fire department was part of the draw for Astrid Salazar, 17, a senior next year at George Mason High School in Falls Church, which is also served by the Arlington Fire Department.

She also came to the cadet-intern program from the EMT class at Arlington’s Career Center. But she was also curious about the firefighting side of things.

"It is attractive," she said. "I have family members who work as firefighters, and it’s really interesting, when they share their stories."

That goes down well with Paula Rae Sherman, head of the fire department’s administrative services division. If the department’s trying to attract future firefighters, she said, it would do well to look for as diverse a crew as possible, including Latinos, African Americans and women.

Attracting a range of faces is only half of making them possible firefighters, she said. The cadets will also have to live up to some of the requirements that firefighter trainees must meet.

"We want to expose them to as much as possible, so that hopefully we can hire all 13 of them. I had one guy tell me he was going to take them out for a 7 a.m. run," she said, "because that’s where the young ladies fall out of the process – the physical stuff."

In addition, the cadet-interns will face a year-long learning process, Sherman said. They must work 30 hours a week over the summer, 10 hours a week during the school year, and to complete the program, they also have to pass a series of tests on different modules, each addressing a different aspect of the department.

If they pass, though, they earn a certificate of completion that could put them on a fast track to becoming an Arlington firefighter.

<b>THIS YEAR IS</b> only the first year of the cadet-intern program. Planning began in 2000, but in the meantime, Plaugher said, the department tried to make sure everything was in order so that the program would run smoothly.

"It’s up to us to do it right," he said. "This is not without burdens, it’s not without risks. That’s why we took two years. We wanted to make sure that everything’s in place, all the safeguards, and all the modules."

It still remains to be seen if everything comes off without a hitch. The program will be monitored throughout the year, and if changes are needed, they will come after the end of the program next summer.

This seemed like an opportune time to get the program in place, though, Plaugher said. "Of course we know that, after Sept. 11, our status as role models is higher than ever," he said. "This is a great opportunity to build on that."