The Fairfield and Benton Fire-Rescue Department recently expanded its junior firefighters program, partnering with the Mid Maine Technical Center in Waterville to build up a reserve of volunteer and on-call personnel in the midst of a national shortage.

“Right now the State of Maine is experiencing a shortage of volunteer or on-call firefighters,” said Duane Bickford, chief of the Fairfield fire department. “This program allows us to train and mentor younger people who may be or may become interested in joining their local department.”

Student Cassidy Rood trains Wednesday during a class for junior firefighters at the fire department in Fairfield. Rood’s dad, Eric, left, is a firefighter with the department. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

The average age of the state’s firefighters is between 45 and 55 years old, according to the National Fire Protection Association, one of the reasons a shortage exists as firefighters age out of the service. With fewer volunteer and on-call staff, not enough people are available to replace them.

From 2016 to 2018, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S dropped from 814,850 in 2016, to 729,000 in 2017, to 682,600 in 2018, according to a study from the NFPA

Trevor Mackenzie started the Fairfield and Benton juniors program when he moved to Fairfield after serving at the Waterville Fire Department. He asked if Fairfield had a program he could enroll his son in. With the help of colleague Eric Rood, who had a daughter who was interested in firefighting, the two got the program off the ground in March 2014.

At the time, the department had only a ride-along program in place. After some discussion, according to Bickford, it was decided that Mackenzie could start a program on three conditions: He would be responsible for the program, the program would only be open to kids of department members and that he would join the department’s call force as an apparatus operator.

After the Fairfield program launched, outside interest picked up, and the department opened the opportunity up to anyone wanting to join.

“The response has been positive both within the department and the community,” Bickford said.

The junior firefighters program caters to kids 14 to 17 years old who have an interest in firefighting. The program convenes twice a month for training sessions and offers students the opportunity to assist on fire calls.

“We want to give them that hands-on experience so they figure out if this is the right career for them,” Mackenzie said. “It’s a great recruitment tool, whether they join our department or elsewhere.”

Student Dylan Hardenburg, right, races to dress in fire gear and equipment during a timed drill for junior firefighters in training at the Fairfield Fire Department in Fairfield Wednesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

The new partnership accomplishes several things at once, Mackenzie said.

Students from Fairfield, Oakland, Waterville and Winslow who are enrolled in the firefighter and EMT programs at the tech center are transported to one of the two Fairfield stations during the school day for hands-on training with the on-duty fire staff.

“On-duty fire personnel provide the training for the necessary skills with the junior firefighter program,” Bickford said. “At the same time these experienced firefighters are mentoring the students in an actual fire department environment which further enhances the students’ learning experiences.”

“With them coming to us, we don’t have to take a truck out of service or use any overtime coverage to provide the practical lessons,” Mackenzie said. “It also helps that the kids hear the instruction from another person so it backs up that information and drives it home into the kids to help them learn.”

Jeff Aucoin of Fairfield-Benton Fire-Rescue, left, uses humor to reach junior firefighters in a training class in Fairfield Wednesday. Students facing the camera, from left, are Josh Sylvester, Brandon Longley and Colby Greenwald. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“We try to make it fun and interesting,” said Capt. Jeff Aucoin, who, along with Travis Leary, is one of the program’s instructors. “We’re giving them the basics so hopefully they can join a department after they leave.”

Aucoin, who also serves as the department’s training officer, led a session Wednesday night that focused on the different hand tools used in firefighting.

Aucoin gathered the six students in attendance around the fire engines and explained, tool by tool, what they were used for, including tools meant for breaking, pulling, pushing and cutting.

“Our job is time,” Aucoin said. “You need to grab tools that you can handle and tools that you know all of what they can and can’t do.”

The students then held each tool and went through the motions of how they would use them in a fire.

Each student is also given safety gear, which they demonstrated putting on during Wednesday’s session.

“The goal is two minutes and five seconds,” Eric Rood said. “That’s from putting on their boots to breathing air.”

Rood’s daughter Cassidy is enrolled in the program and was among the students at Wednesday’s training.

“I love it,” Cassidy said. “I’ve been interested in this for a while, especially watching my dad while growing up … and this program is really special. It’s definitely not common, so I love being a part of it.”

Cassidy, a sophomore at Lawrence High School, said she has aspirations of becoming a paramedic and plans on enrolling in the EMT course at Mid Maine Tech next year.

This year, the juniors program has eight students enrolled, four of whom are also involved with the program at Mid Maine Tech.

“Both programs, I believe, are still in their infancy and will continue to grow and evolve over time,” Mackenzie said.


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