Like many little boys growing up in the South, C.J. Chester dreamed of becoming a fireman.
“I remember as a kid seeing firetrucks going by every once in awhile,” said Chester. “I always thought, ‘They’ve got to be going to save somebody’s life; they’re going to put out a fire at somebody’s house.’ It was just cool seeing the fire trucks come by. I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter.”
A senior at North Hall High School, Chester is well on his way to seeing his dream become reality. He is one of a group of less than 20 students enrolled in the Firefighter/Emergency Medical Service Professions certification program offered for the first time at Early College @ Jones. The program is designed to give students training and skills to make them employable as firefighters and get some introduction to first responder work as well.
Early College is a Hall County Schools dual enrollment initiative in its second year, in which students earn college and high school credit at the same time.
The program began this fall at Jones with the Basic Firefighter/EMS Fundamentals course, the first of four courses that will be offered through Lanier Technical College over four semesters to high school juniors and seniors. Seniors like Chester will likely have the opportunity to complete the final two classes next summer or fall at Lanier Tech, according to Karen Nowakowski, director of the Fire Science and Emergency Management programs at Lanier Tech and one of the instructors in the program at Jones.
Nowakowski said students will be eligible to take the National Professional Qualifications tests for Firefighter 1 and Hazardous Materials certificates once they complete the four courses. Only juniors and seniors are accepted into the program because the students must be 18 before they can take the tests which Nowakowski said includes at least two “controlled” structure fires.
“When they graduate, they’ll be able to apply for a job, they’ll be already nationally certified,” Nowakowski said. “It catapults them. They don’t necessarily have to compete with so many people that most departments have to train first.”
While the program is new, Nowakowski said she has already seen excitement from students.
“In public safety, you want to have people who want to be in the field,” she said. “It’s really, really inspiring to see students at their age who know what they want to do and they want to help people. You have students who want to work, they’re in college, they’re getting college credit, they’re getting an education and the fact is at the end of their courses, they’re employable.”
A retired Atlanta firefighter, Nowakowski said passion is important to a success as a firefighter.
“In this field you have to have a passion because you see people on their worst days,” she said. “We’ve laid it out for them from the beginning, ‘On their worst days, people are asking you to come.’ And that’s what these kids want to do. They want to be there for people on their worst days. That’s exciting to me.”
The students attend classes at Jones Monday through Thursdays and then have mandatory community service projects on Fridays.
Chester said the opening of Lanier Tech program at Jones was “perfect timing” for him.
“I’d like to, after my school here, go to either go to Gainesville City or Oakwood (fire departments) and stay there and get really connected with all those guys and be there until I retire,” he said.
Karma Sandell, a senior at West Hall High, said she was initially interested in becoming a nurse, but began thinking about a career as a firefighter after a conversation with a neighbor who had graduated from a firefighter school.
“We began to talk about it and this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “I like the drama; I like the suspense. I want to go into a job where I have a family, team-type of situation and work with other people in the same career.”
Capt. Richie Carignan, the lead teacher for the class at Jones and 20 years experience as a firefighter, said he was first introduced to fire services as a teenager through the Boy Scouts of America’s Explorers program. He said the courses offered through Lanier Tech at Jones offer more advantages to these students.
“If I had had this opportunity at their age, in this structured environment, it would have been invaluable to my career,” said Carignan, who works with Barrow County Fire Services. (Explorers) did not have the structure this program has.”
Carignan has taught firefighters informally for much of his career, but this is his first formal teaching position. He said he doesn’t know yet how teaching high school students in a formal school setting will be different than his past experiences, saying “that’s going to be just a difference we have to learn and get used to.”
He is pleased with the excitement he has seen from the students.
“That’s extremely important because to me that shows their buy-in to the program and what they intend to get out of the program from Early College and Lanier Tech,” he said. “Fire departments in the local area, a large majority of them, will train them to the certification level that they require for a position, but there’s also fire departments that they can join that just having this certification will allow them to walk in the door as an employee.”
While there will be opportunities for employment, Nowakowski said students will be encouraged to get more training after completing the program. She added most who choose firefighting as a career will, at some point, go school for training as an emergency medical technician.
“We encourage students to go on and get their fire science degree, but eventually, most of these students are going to have to go in and get their EMT school,” she said. “Ninety percent of departments in the state of Georgia respond to medical calls as either first responders or EMTs or paramedics.
“We’re not all about rescuing cats in trees; we really don’t do that anymore. It’s about responding to medical calls and being able to supplement whatever medical agencies are responding. Typically, our response times are quicker because we run out of a fire station, so we’re there quicker than the ambulance and we can help.”
Michele Hood, coordinator for the Early College program, said students were “jumping out of their seats excited” to get into the program.
“We brainstormed together (with Lanier Tech) to see what services and programs Lanier Tech was offering and what we felt would be beneficial to our community and our Jones students. And this was just the perfect marrying of ideas.”
Early College, which offers classes through both Lanier Tech and the University of North Georgia, currently has 168 students, up from 127 last year, according to Hood. She said 43 percent of students take two to three classes each semester. Ten of the students in the firefighter program are only taking that class.