Inside Sugarloaf Twp.’s fire station, teenagers gather.
It’s a second home to them but also a place where they serve the community as junior firefighters. They are a few of dozens of local teens doing the same thing at their hometown fire stations across the region.
At Sugarloaf Twp., the youngest of them is 14-year-old Malaki Fields, the age when a teen can sign up as a junior. At 15 years old, Kevin Pedersen, Aiden Bacon, Alyssa Kuba and Morgan Flaim hold the junior title, too, as do Nicole Greising and Peter Hildebrand, both 17. They’re all training to become full-fledged first responders.
While none of them will enter a burning building to fight a fire until they turn 18, for now they have an important role to fulfill. Greising said they offer outside support to senior members during an emergency and a lot of that involves getting them the tools they need, something Pedersen proudly refers to as being a “truck gopher.”
Each cautious step they take, they’re learning skills and how to save people in need.
Greising’s father is a firefighter and so are both of Hildebrand’s parents — his father, Duane, serving as chief and his mother, Wendy, serving as lieutenant. The two grew up at the station by default and their stories are similar to other generations of firefighters who joined because family showed them what it was like. Fields and Bacon both charted a reverse course, having joined the department before their parents did, Duane Hildebrand said during a mid-October Standard-Speaker interview with the juniors.
Then the booming tones sound at the fire station from Luzerne County 911 and each of the juniors grows silent, listening intently to the message that follows. There’s a crash about four miles away near the Interstate 81 park-and-ride on Tomhicken Road.
Quickly, they tuck their cellphones away and head to their lockers, throw gear on over their t-shirts and jeans and jump into the fire engine, locking in their seatbelts as Wendy Hildebrand takes charge of the steering wheel.
“We get everybody home,” said Wendy. They also try to shield them from difficult calls the juniors are too young to witness.
The juniors pile out of the truck and immediately begin grabbing gear, spreading absorbent materials on fluids that leaked from the wrecked car. The driver crashed in a culvert and hit a drainage ditch before dragging dirt into the park and ride, which the juniors also clean up.
“It’s chaotic but everyone knows what they’re doing. It’s almost like you’re reading each other’s minds,” Pedersen said.
A junior firefighter will take 111 hours of training classes, said Hazleton Deputy Fire Chief Brian Mandak.
The list of entry-level training courses juniors take can be found at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy website. “These are the classes that lay the groundwork,” said Mandak. From there, they can take additional classes at 16 and, after they turn 18, they can take even more to become certified — that’s 175 hours of training, plus online class time, he said. Some classes were postponed due to the pandemic this year and locally the last of them finished up ahead of Thanksgiving.
Classes are usually paid through the fire department but firefighters will also end up paying out of pocket for training, Mandak said. It may seem like a lot to ask of a volunteer but when there’s a desire to serve the community, people rise to the occasion and that’s exactly why Sugarloaf’s fleet of juniors signed up.
Bacon wanted to serve his community and found a conduit at the fire station.
“I thought there was no better place to do that than at the fire station,” Pedersen said.
“You’re running toward what could be a house fire, one of the worst days of someone’s life, losing almost everything,” said Pedersen, who plans to be a career firefighter one day.
Kuba wants to go into the medical field and thought firefighting was a good way to get started now. She said people always seem surprised when they find out she’s a firefighter but it was one of the first extracurriculars she enjoyed.
Freeland Fire Department has a handful of juniors who are responsible for taking several training modules that involve online learning, but the majority of it is in-person learning. While the pandemic caused a bit of a setback for those learning the skills a firefighter needs, Freeland was able to host a few classes in house after taking into account social distancing, Borough Fire Chief Joseph Stepansky said.
Juniors are typically handling business outside the fire. They get ladders ready, stretch out cords for electrical equipment and help with water resources, said Stepansky.
“They’re exterior support,” Stepansky said. “And they are very valuable.”
Normally, fire departments would head to schools in October for fire prevention week to offer safety tips to students, but also to let them know they could become a junior. This year was different as the new coronavirus pandemic kept firefighters out of the classroom. Still, the desire to tell anyone interested to join their local station exists.
“There’s a demand (for firefighters), there’s just not a lot of people answering the call,” said Mandak. Now 53 years old, he started as a junior at 14 at the Diamond Fire Company in Hazleton, following in his father’s footsteps. He’s not only a deputy fire chief, he also teachers fire classes at Luzerne County Community College and at colleges in Bucks and Allegheny counties.
“It’s a commitment. It’s like having a full-time job you’re not paid for,” he said, but it teaches people a lot of life skills and keeps kids out of trouble.
“It gives them something to do in their free time. Something positive,” Stepansky said. He would know, having been a firefighter for 33 years. Stepansky, like Mandak, started out as a junior on June 3, 1986, a day he remembers without pause. His grandfather and father were firefighters; his brother and daughter, too.
Whether pumping water out of someone’s basement or extinguishing the flames threatening a house, Stepansky said it makes him feel good to help someone else.
It’s an excellent way to give back to your community, Stepansky said, but it also passes on valuable knowledge about building construction and chemicals that can be used outside the fire scene in every day life.
Four miles from Freeland’s station, Bob Pecile, Valley Regional Fire Chief, said their fire station has about 10 juniors and only a minority of them are children of firefighters. Interest spreads like fire sometimes. He said when a teenager joins, their friends sometimes come along too.
“They’re the future,” Pecile said, in a world where volunteerism is dying.
“They’re there to look and learn,” he said. The hope is they continue after 18.
Pecile started in 1974 as a junior at 14 years old and is now 59. When he began at the fire company, then Butler Twp. Fire Company, his father was the township police chief and decided his son needed something to do.
“He felt I needed to be part of the community,” and Pecile ended up liking it quite a bit.
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