When Chris Tinch of West Babylon boarded an ambulance to respond to an emergency call last summer, he was expecting to help a patient who was having respiratory difficulty — but things took a startling turn. “As we got on scene, everything changed,” Tinch says. “She was unconscious.”
Tinch, just 16 at the time, was caught by surprise — but thanks to the youth emergency medical service training program at the Wyandanch Wheatley Heights Ambulance Explorer Post 1289, he and the crew knew what to do and quickly got to work. They administered fluids and oxygen and got the patient safely to the hospital, where she recovered from dehydration.
It may sound like a harrowing situation for such a young person to handle, but Tinch, now 17 and a lieutenant in the program, says, “Getting to ride on the ambulance and take care of patients, that’s my favorite part.”
Youth volunteers like Tinch are known either as “explorers” — members of Fire & EMS Exploring Program by Learning for Life, an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America — or “juniors,” members of a similar but unaffiliated program run by individual fire departments and ambulance corps. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and the young participants get a similar experience with either program.
If you’ve got a middle or high school student with a taste for excitement and call to serve, read on for details about how fire departments and ambulance corps across Long Island offer teens, and sometimes tweens, the chance to get hands-on training with real emergency equipment and lifesaving skills.
Who can join?
Eligibility varies by department, but most programs accept youths from within their own fire protection district, and sometimes from surrounding areas as well.
Each department has its own minimum age requirement, often between ages 12 and 14. But firefighter Deana Roper, president of the Glenwood Fire Company, says kids as young as 10 can join the junior program there. Her own three children — Robby, 16, Danny, 13 and Diana, 11 — are all juniors there. Robby was recently elected captain by his fellow juniors.
Kids can remain in a youth program until they’re old enough to join the department, usually at age 17 or 18.
How much does it cost?
A junior program is typically free to join, says East Norwich firefighter Jerry Presta, chair of the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association.
And while the Exploring Program lists an annual registration fee of $33 on its website, an individual department may choose to cover the costs of the program and make it free to join. For example, it’s free to become an explorer at the Wyandanch Wheatley Heights Ambulance Explorer Post 1289.
In some cases there may be extra costs, such as uniforms and field trips; some departments hold fundraisers to cover youth program expenses.
What’s the time commitment?
Each department sets its own schedule, Presta says. “Usually they meet anywhere from two to four times a month. Sometimes more, if they want to do extra activities.” Those activities might include additional training, fundraisers, parades, community service projects and social events such as bowling, barbecues and installation dinners.
What kind of training will they receive?
Youth volunteers learn emergency procedures and first aid, and may earn CPR certification. They become familiar with the emergency vehicles and learn where the supplies are located. And they practice using rescue equipment such as the stretcher and the “stair chair” — a device used to safely evacuate people up or down stairs.
Youth firefighters are also trained in the use and maintenance of gear such as ladders, pumps and hoses. They learn to use SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), and how to search for victims while wearing a darkened mask, to simulate the poor visibility during a fire.
“They learn how to talk on the radio. They get tested on the different call signs and codes and signals they have to know,” says Presta. “That’s why they’re in it for sometimes four or five years, because there’s a lot to know.”
Can they go on real emergency calls?
Laws and each department’s individual insurance policy dictate what youth members can and can’t do. For instance, at the Wyandanch Wheatley Heights Ambulance Explorer Post 1289, young people are allowed to go on certain calls and get experience with adults, says Chief Anthony Neazer, who has run the program for 27 years.
“We also provide the first aid when the Boy Scouts have their jamboree," a summer event at Baiting Hollow Scout Camp, Neazer says.
Meanwhile, juniors at the Glenwood Fire Department don’t go on any calls. “They don’t do anything outside of the supervision of our members,” Roper says.
Is it dangerous?
Safety is a top priority, and youth training exercises are carefully supervised under controlled conditions to minimize any risks. For example, “you’ll climb a ladder, you’ll do a leg lock, you’ll climb in a window, but there’s usually at least five to seven instructors watching everybody’s every move,” says 22-year-old firefighter Kaitlin Mackie, who started out as a junior in the Massapequa Fire Department at age 14. “Everybody is well-informed before they attempt things.”
Are there leadership opportunities?
Yes, there are many opportunities, both within the individual departments and at the county association level, says Syosset junior firefighter Robert Dowd, 17. Dowd first served as secretary of the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association before becoming president for 2018 to 2019.
At the department level, juniors can run their own meetings and nominate one another for line officer positions such as captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, secretary and treasurer, Dowd says. “Within my department, I was second lieutenant, and now I’m currently captain,” he says. “I run the meetings and I oversee the whole juniors program, and the first and second lieutenants support me in doing day-to-day tasks.”
Why do it?
Program advisers and participants say the benefits are almost too numerous to list, including new skills, camaraderie, the rewards of community service and exposure and access to educational and career opportunities.
Mackie says her experience as a junior and the encouragement of fellow firefighters started her on the path that eventually led her to become a registered nurse. “I found friends that I know will be lifelong, and a career in something that I absolutely love. I never would have found all that without the juniors,” she says.
“We’ve had kids go from explorers to paramedics, nurses, doctors. A lot have gotten scholarships to college,” says Neazer.
Juniors can register online with the National Junior Firefighters Program to log their service hours and earn rewards for achieving milestones. And when youth volunteers reach college age, those who go on to become active volunteers and meet certain requirements may be eligible for community college tuition reimbursement, through programs such as Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services’ Suffolk Educational program for Retention in the Volunteer Emergency Services or the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s Higher Education Learning Plan.
And perhaps the most obvious benefit is one that serves everyone, regardless of future plans: learning what to do in an emergency. “Even if you don’t join the fire service afterward, it’s great to learn and have that for life,” says Mackie. “Even if you never get CPR-certified again, that training will stick with you when you’re in a situation where you need it.”
Ready for more?
Each summer, the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association invites serious junior firefighters ages 14 and up to Camp Fahrenheit 516 to undergo real fire academy training at the Nassau County Fire Services Academy in Old Bethpage.
It’s not for the faint of heart. “These kids go through exactly what we go through when we go through fire academy, except it’s squeezed from a two-week program to one week,” says firefighter and association chair Jerry Presta.
“They go into burning buildings, the flashover simulator — that’s when the room actually ignites, the walls and everything,” says Presta. And unlike many other training camps, which use propane fires, this camp burns real wood and fuel so the fires can’t simply be turned off. Campers also climb a 30-foot ladder and use a rope to escape through a second-story window.
Though these activities sound perilous, Presta says there have been no injuries in the four years the camp has run, thanks to intensive safety training and constant close supervision by state-certified instructors.
“Going into it, everybody is a little bit nervous because they’re not sure what to expect,” says junior firefighter Robert Dowd, 17, of Syosset. But ultimately, “it was a ton of fun being able to do live fire training there. It was a really great experience, and that sparks a lot of juniors’ interest, so I think it’s really good for retention,” says Dowd, who has attended the camp twice.
The camp is always held in the last week of July, and there’s no cost to attend. Registration opens in April, after funding is finalized. Each year, the association invites its member departments to send one boy and one girl to camp. (A department may send a second boy only if there are no girls who want to attend.) Any remaining spaces may be opened up to nonmembers.
For more information, contact your local junior firefighter program or visit ncjfa.org.