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Explorers program teaches kids about firefighting

DACULA - Some people never figure out what they want to be when they grow up. Some, like the Gwinnett County Fire Explorers, know exactly.

The Explorers is an educational program for 14- to 19-year-olds who have set their sights on a career in the fire services.

"It gives kids an overview of the job and a good idea of what to expect as a firefighter," said Lt. Ryan Trott, lead adviser. "Some may decide this (career) isn't for them but (Explorers) is still something positive for them to do."

Gwinnett Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said the program, like any other extracurricular activity, requires motivation and dedication. The group meets for about three hours each week, receiving training and education on basic firefighter and emergency medical technician duties. Explorers learn about fire behavior and dispatch procedures, and spend plenty of time becoming familiar with the tools of the trade.

Explorers are issued a complete set of firefighting gear and are responsible for its maintenance. They learn to completely suit up in under two minutes because, in the real world of fighting fires, the line between life and death can be a thin one.

While the youth program won't expose an Explorer to exactly what he or she would encounter during the actual county Fire Training Academy, its lessons are invaluable. Academically, Explorers study the same handbook as their professional counterparts.

Rutledge said hands-on exercises such as extinguishing fires and search and rescue missions are all simulated. "There's no live fire and these kids are never put in imminent danger," he said.

No one, perhaps, can attest to the program's value better than 19-year-old Justin Wilson. Wilson spent three years as an Explorer before entering the Fire Academy in September 2008. After graduating in February, one of Gwinnett's newest firefighters now serves as a mentor to his former colleagues.

"Rather than beginning the academy blindly, this helps give them some insight," Wilson said. "I'm here to help them understand their role in the academy and get them physically and mentally ready."

Alex Pappas, 16, has been an Explorer for about five months. He said he recently decided his calling was in the fire services and the reason is simple: "I felt like if there was someone out there who needed me and I wasn't there, I'd feel pretty bad."

Third-year Explorer Jordan Mulheron, 18, spent nearly a year as a police Explorer before deciding the fire department is where she wants to be.

"I came to a Citizen Fire Academy meeting with my mom and that was it," she said. "I want to go to college, get my Fire Science and EMT degree and come back here."

The program is accepting new applicants and will hold an open enrollment from 7p.m. until 9 p.m. Thursday at the training academy, 3608 Braselton Highway, Dacula.

"We encourage everyone interested to come out, but this is a popular program and space is limited," Rutledge said.

To reserve a spot, call the department's public information office at 678-518-4824.