How to start a successful junior firefighting program
Getting a program off the ground requires policies, advisors and serious commitment – but it’s all worth it
One of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done is junior firefighting, both as a participant and later as an advisor. I can’t imagine my youth without the service and experience of junior firefighting, which profoundly affected who I am today.
Every department with the will and resources should start a program. And if you’re ready to do so, but don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place.
Why start a program?
Junior firefighting programs allow teens, usually between the ages of 14 and 18, to join their local fire department. When done properly, a junior firefighting program is an incredible opportunity for your community. Here’s why:
- Teens that participate will have the chance at one of the most unique and rewarding life experiences. They develop leadership skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives, inherit important values of the fire service, build lifelong relationships, explore career opportunities, and have a chance to serve their community.
- The department will benefit by having a group of young people who are willing to assist with a variety of tasks and responsibilities, access to this great recruitment tool and, as their training progresses, additional on-scene support.
- The community benefits by having young adults engaged with public safety agencies and exposed to opportunities for social development, as well as benefiting from the community services participants can help sustain.
Watching young people transform into adults by passing on the knowledge and traditions of the fire service is well worth the time. Making a lasting impact on a young adult is a powerful and priceless experience.
Are you ready to commit?
This is the most important question: Are you and your department ready to commit? To do this right, it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. It will take countless hours. When working with young people, there can be unique, time-intensive challenges. Keep this in mind as you proceed. That said, this is the fire service and you’re not alone. You will need the support of department leadership and a dedicated team committed to this program.
How to start the program
The most successful way to approach the structure of a junior firefighting program is to essentially treat it as its own fire company, with its own drill times, meetings, events, training schedule and even its own junior leadership. You’ll want to integrate the program into the fire department, but the program requires independence to operate. Let’s review how to make this work.
Establish a team of advisors: First, the program needs adult leadership to serve as “advisors” to the program. This team will establish the structure of the program, training guidelines and schedules, and handle the administrative work. They will also serve as the liaison between the department and the program. A variety of firefighters can be called upon to assist with specific training and events, but you want a dedicated crew to lead the program on a day-to-day basis.
Create program policy or guidelines: The first assignment for the Advisor Team is to establish the governing policy creating the program. To start, rather than address every detail of the program, focus on who and how decisions will be made. Often, volunteer departments will need to consider bylaw amendments.
There are many factors to address in this process:
- Membership: How will junior firefighters fit into the structure of your department? Volunteer departments often have different classes of membership with certain benefits and requirements. Do you want to establish a junior firefighting class of membership?
- Application process: What steps do you envision to apply?
- Program eligibility: Who do you want in your program? There are several factors to consider here:
- Age: Standard participation range is 14-18; however, some programs allow participants to remain until 21, while others don’t let participants join until 16.
- Residency: There is value in allowing non-resident participants to join your program, especially if there is no alternative in their community.
- Participants: The program should be co-ed. Junior firefighting programs can be a great way to reverse the fire service’s abysmal record on gender diversity.
- Health: Consider requiring a doctor’s note, as many school sport programs do.
- Academics: Consider collecting high school report cards and requiring academic intervention if participants drop below a certain grade point average. Participation in junior firefighting should help develop young people into healthy and successful young adults, not inhibit academic achievement. Advisors or even fellow program participants can tutor those in need.
- Criminal history: Do you plan to conduct background checks for program advisors?
- Advisor onboarding: Will you onboard advisors so they understand appropriate behavior when dealing with minors? Dating or any type of relationship with participants outside of the program must be strictly prohibited.
- Discipline: Who will be responsible for issuing discipline? This is important to navigate, as there is the Advisor Team as well as Department Leadership.
- Sign-offs: Who is approving the minor’s participation? Participation by minors requires forms for parent/guardian sign-off, which should also include approvals for photo use on the department website or social media accounts.
Note: It is also important to leave some decisions for the program participants to make.
Start recruiting: Recruitment can be a challenge – but it will get easier with time. Websites and social media are easy ways to advertise and a great place to start.
Engage with the local public school system, which will have multiple options to connect you with interested participants. For example, you may be able to speak at an orientation event for students entering high school or you could include a flyer in the new year materials handed out to students. My former department used to park an apparatus in front of the high school on orientation days, and some of the junior firefighters would wear their gear and discuss the program with interested students.
Further, ensure your presence or inclusion in regular department recruitment operations, such as tables at farmers markets or community and department public events. Eventually, word of mouth will become one of the primary methods of recruitment for your program. Invite those interested to come and watch a drill or two to see what it is all about.
On-board your members: On-boarding is important. If you’re investing time and money into the participants, you want to be sure they clearly understand the commitments. Be upfront about the commitment and expectations. This is not just any club or organization; the members will be representing one of the most respected organizations in their community.
Start by developing a standard agenda or checklist that can be reused, then set up a meeting with the interested participant. By doing this, you can not only explain the program but also learn more about what they hope to achieve. Through this process, you may also learn that they have special skills that can benefit the department, such as social media engagement or website graphic design.
A good friend of mine in a neighboring department was highly adept in video editing as a high school student and made multiple amazing videos for his department while serving as a junior firefighter – and he’s a lieutenant now!
Running the program
The specifics of every department's program will be just as unique as every fire department in this country. Here are some general aspects to consider:
- Develop a schedule: When does the organization meet? My suggestion is to pick one night per week, with three drills and one monthly meeting. If this is too frequent, consider every other week.
- Participant leadership: The organization should have its own leadership structure. This is key for participants to develop leadership skills. They should hold an annual or biannual election to elect officers (e.g., president, vice president(s), treasurer and secretary, at least).
- Monthly meetings: The club should hold an administrative meeting once per month that follows Robert's Rules of Order, and requires reports from each officer to the membership, and minutes, too.
- Program finances: The program should have its own budget, managed by the treasurer, with guidance from an assigned advisor who has actual signing authority. The department will need to make a financial commitment to start the program, and then through fundraising, the program can help sustain itself. Firefighting gear, insurance and similar expenses should be covered by the department. T-shirts, banquets and the like can be funded through a thoughtful budget and then fundraising events.
One of the most rewarding aspects of running a junior firefighting program is designing training. Training for junior firefighters should focus on the basics, fully preparing members to excel in Firefighter I training, if they so choose.
Here are some ideas to help get started:
- Hydrant operations: This is what we trained on more often than any other topic. We set up hydrant relay races and held timed hydrant challenges.
- Ground ladders: Practice throwing ladders over and over, a key skill that junior firefighters can provide on a fireground. Try this target practice exercise with ground ladders.
- Equipment location: This is a good one for quizzes and mock responses.
- Equipment use: Try Jenga or stacking cups with extrication equipment.
- Radio communications: This is a good drill to engage members.
- Major fire history: It’s important that new members know fire service history.
Encourage participants to attend and or participate in regular department training, too, especially if they are going to be responding to calls with firefighters. This helps build a positive rapport with firefighters.
Other training events include holding joint drills with other junior firefighting programs in the region. One exciting training event is to have competitions with other junior firefighting programs, relay races or muster challenges. For over a decade, the Connecticut Fire Academy has hosted an annual muster for junior firefighters from across the state. Also, Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts has hosted a historic firefighting muster challenge for junior firefighters, with a bucket brigade and hand-drawn pump.
Responding to Emergency Calls
Responding to calls is by far the most exciting aspect of the experience. If properly implemented, it is also a huge benefit to the department. Juniors don’t get complacent in firefighting basics because they are constantly training on them. It’s likely a junior firefighter can dress a hydrant and get water to a scene more efficiently than a 10-year veteran who may have not dressed a hydrant in years.
How junior firefighters respond to calls will depend on the design of your program. Clear standards must be met to allow for response eligibility. Develop a set of competencies that must be attained before response is allowed. Utilizing the concept of Firefighter I and Firefighter II, set different levels for participants to attain.
For example, a Level 1 junior firefighter must prove their competence in a basic set of competencies. Create a checklist that each participant can use to track their progress. Have an advisor sign off, confirming when each skill has been successfully demonstrated. Once the checklist is fully signed off, consider performing a final overall spot test. If they pass and have demonstrated character and discipline in line with expectations, they should be approved to start responding. Send a notice to ensure that they’re introduced to the rest of the department.
Level 2 can include a set of more advanced skills to encourage additional development. This level could come with extra benefits, such as an extended time of response or maybe some tools or a pager. Interested participants should be encouraged to become certified EMTs or emergency medical responders.
It’s important to consider participant ages and local, state and federal work rules. While you may allow participants to join at 14, it may be beneficial, based on labor rules, to wait for the emergency response age to be 16. Most states have guidelines and rules that apply to minors working or volunteering in the fire service.
Further, ensure that junior firefighters understand the confidentiality of what they may be exposed to on scene, as well as protocols regarding cell phone use and social media.
Remember, these are teens responding to potentially serious emergencies. There may not be a need to expose them unnecessarily to disturbing or traumatic situations. For example, there was an emergency in which a routine garage fire turned out to be a suicide, with a deceased individual that had barricaded themselves in the garage and then set fire to it. We didn’t need the junior firefighters on scene for body removal. If they are exposed to trauma, include them in critical incident stress debriefing. It’s best practice to reduce the exposure to trauma for anyone, especially young adults. Instill a positive approach to mental health in junior firefighting programs, and start their fire service career on a strong footing.
Boy Scouts Exploring
One cannot consider starting a junior firefighting program without discussing Exploring, the national program affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) that seeks to “teach important life and career skills to young people from all backgrounds through immersive career experiences and mentorship.” Exploring is implemented through local BSA councils and an interested organization can form its own post or club. Establishing your program as an Exploring Post is like buying ready-to-assemble furniture. It will provide you with operational guidelines, basic policy and a model structure. Notably, exploring programs provide some basic insurance, training for adult advisors, and background checks.
This all comes with a cost, though. There is a per head fee for both explorers and adults, as well as insurance fees and some minor costs depending on your local BSA chapter. Your program will also be affiliated with the BSA, which comes with its rules and policies, as well as to some extent, its branding. I recommend considering a Post at the start and then rethinking its value as the program stabilizes.
It’s worth it
There is no single right way to start a junior firefighter program. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. When I contemplate my years as a young adult, I can’t imagine them without the profound impact junior firefighting had on my life, as a participant and advisor. I carry this experience wherever I go. Even in my career outside of the volunteer fire service, I find myself leaning on the leadership skills and values I developed as a junior firefighter. That is surely something worth creating for others.