By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislature’s interim Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services heard a presentation on the West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Fire Service’s Junior Fire Academy during its Tuesday meeting.
Mark Lambert, director of the WVU Extension Fire Service, told committee members that the Junior Fire Academy is held each summer, typically in June, and hosts youth from across the state, as well as from throughout the nation, who are interested in pursuing a firefighting or emergency operations career.
The academy is for those from ages 14-17. Each camper gets to stay in a cabin at Jackson’s Mill in Lewis County for five days while they attend hands-on firefighter training courses, including urban and rural safety, first aid, CPR, interior firefighting and more, at the West Virginia State Fire Academy, Lambert explained.
“All of the courses are taught by firefighters and first responders who are subject matter experts in different areas,” Lambert said, adding that the courses prepare the students to test for the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 1001 Standard on Firefighter Professional Qualifications.
The cost for attendance is $450, Lambert said. However, Kanawha County has an agreement to pay for the first 10 junior campers who enroll as long as they reside in Kanawha County.
“Of course, I know that every county can’t do that, but we’d certainly entertain the idea with any other counties that can,” Lambert stated.
This past year, about 100 campers attended the academy, he continued. Every camper planned on becoming active with a department, 75 campers stated that they currently volunteer with fire departments, and 20 campers resided out-of-state.
About 25 percent of the campers each year are female, and there are female instructors on the all-volunteer staff, Lambert said.
In addition to providing quality introductory firefighting and emergency services training, Lambert said that another goal of the junior fire academy is to get young persons interested in a career that is struggling to recruit and retain volunteers.
“I grew up in the fire service in West Virginia,” Lambert said. “I am a native of Madison. I’m here for the same reason you guys are. We’ve got to get younger people involved in the fire service in West Virginia. There’s no doubt about it–people like me are getting old.”
Lambert said the average age of a volunteer firefighter in the state of Ohio is 56 years old.
While he didn’t have the exact average age of a volunteer firefighter in West Virginia, he estimated the average age is older than 56.
In response to a question from Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, about volunteer firefighting testing requirements, Lambert said that a person is able to volunteer for a fire department at age 14 and 15, if they have received junior firefighter training.
“But you’re pretty much confined to the station at those ages,” Lambert said.
At age 16, a person can take the Firefighter 1 test, as long as they have at least 93 hours of standard training and have met prerequisites such as HazMat awareness/operations and First Aid/CPR.
Unless a specific fire department has different rules, the Firefighter 1 test must be passed before a person may ride in the fire truck, Lambert noted.
Committee Co-chair, Del. Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, then discussed training.
“I will say that training has always been an issue that has come before this committee,” Statler said. “We have strong advocates of the training the way it is, and we have advocates out in the field that say it’s too stringent and we need to look at other ways of doing it. I know somewhere in the middle there lies the answer of how we can do it, because we certainly know for a fact that we do not have enough volunteer firemen across the state.”
Lambert responded, “I don’t know the answer. I’m an advocate for training . . . we do have to have a happy medium.”
Del. D. Rolland Jennings, R-Preston, noted that his county is starting a modular one training program at the beginning of next year.
“I’ve been telling people to do this modular thing if you think it’s taking too long to go through full fighter [training],” Jennings said. “This is the first time we’re going to do it, and I think they’ve already got 20 or 30 people signed up for the class. They are then able to put on a uniform and everything and go to the fire scene. You just can’t enter the fire.”
“It’s not a full firefighter [training], but it’s pretty close” Jennings added. “It gets them on the fire scene, and they realize they are a help.”
Lambert noted that there are four modular training blocks that may be taken, and they may help people realize they would like to take a full course.
Lambert said that he would like to expand educational opportunities at the Junior Fire Academy, and one day offer Firefighting 1 testing.
“I think the capacity at Jackson’s Mill is 300, 350, and I’d love to fill that up one day,” he said.
“When I was 14, I was a junior firefighter in Madison, and would have given anything to have a program like this back in ancient times,” he said, adding that he will continue to look for ways to spread the word about the academy.