All fired up: Program gives teens chance to experience what it takes to be a firefighter

DACULA - Of all the places teenagers can be found this summer - in bed, by the pool, in front of the television - about 20 local teens prefer a far less cushy venture: the drill yard at the county's fire academy.

Milling about on the tarmac on a recent Thursday evening, the Gwinnett County Fire Explorer Cadets had just wrapped up a written exam when Capt. Thomas Rutledge, the department's spokesman and program coordinator, continued the rigors without warning.

"Bunker drill," he said calmly, signaling a transition in which the group had just two minutes to put on their gear.

As a sea of yellow jackets and pants were pulled up and thrown on, Rutledge urged them on with fatherly conviction.

"Let's go," he said, "get in it."

With time running out, several explorer cadets were still maneuvering their way into the bulky gear when Ashley Smith, 17, threw up her gloved hands, signaling she was done. The first one, in fact.

Upon completing a grueling trench drill 20 minutes later - a serpentine of entanglements, narrow spaces and rocks - Smith took off her helmet and Nomex hood and flashed a megawatt "aw shucks" grin. What likely would break most adults - claustrophobia, anyone? - Smith obviously was enjoying.

"My parents are cops and I kind of like how they help the community," she said, catching her breath. "I want to do what they did, except I want to take my path."

Defunct for years, Gwinnett Fire re-established the explorer program with the help of the Boy Scouts of America in 2004 as a recruitment tool to introduce young adults to a career in the fire service. It also was a way for the department to reach out to youths who may be on the wrong path. Recruitment will be held throughout the summer, officials said.

Cadets must be between the ages of 14 to 19 and enrolled in a public, private or home school. Classes are held year-round on Thursday evenings at the academy and participants must maintain a C average in school to maintain active standing. Once an explorer cadet graduates from high school, they also graduate from the program.

From learning to navigate the drill yard, to rolling and racking hose and tying knots, explorer cadets go through much of the same training a Gwinnett Fire Department recruit receives, with the exception of training in live fire conditions (cadets train in simulated smoke). Additionally, cadets receive eight weeks of first responder training, a first-aid certification that is a step below an emergency medical technician, or EMT.

A class of cadets operates like a fully functional department, with individual ranks like chief, captain and lieutenant.

Justin Wilson, a recent Brookwood High graduate, is a four-year explorer cadet. Though he knows he is not guaranteed a job with the department, he said he's walking away from the program with the skills he'll need when he is hopefully chosen for a spot in one of Gwinnett's upcoming rookie schools. He's had plenty of inspiration: His father retired from the department last year after 28 years of service and his uncle is a Gwinnett battalion chief.

"It's a lot of fun, it's a lot of learning," said Wilson, who serves as the classes' chief alongside Smith.

Lt. Ryan Trott, the program's lead advisor who was once an explorer cadet with Rutledge years ago, said the lessons learned go beyond molding an ideal candidate for the fire service.

"It gives them something to do and keeps them out of trouble," said Trott, who works out of Station No. 4 in Peachtree Corners. "It teaches them some sort of structure and the way life is and how to assimilate to adult life."

Explorer cadets give back to the department by volunteering at the department's Youth Fire Safety Training Facility and providing first aid at area events.

Before entering the drill maze recently, Buford resident Logan Wade, 19, said he wanted to complete his father's interrupted dream of becoming a firefighter. Family concerns, he said, prompted his dad to change his mind.

"I'm going to go ahead and try to do the best I can to help make my community a better place for my children," he said.

For information, call Gwinnett Fire and Emergency Services at 678-518 4824.