Pa. school district partners with FDs for recruitment success
The Springfield Township School District and area FDs see success in introducing high school students to community service through fire, EMS
By Rachel Ravina
SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Firefighting first responders in Springfield Township are looking to the next generation to continue the responsibility of serving their community.
As membership in volunteer companies dwindles nationally, a partnership between three Montgomery County fire departments and the Springfield Township School District is offering some relief, with a yearlong recruitment initiative netting a handful of new junior firefighters.
"We're always looking for members," said Oreland Fire Chief Rick Lesniak.
The initiative's origin story began like so many others in today's modern times, a search on social media. Lesniak came across a post for Schoolhouse to Firehouse, a consultancy firm run by Ellen Yarborough out of Delaware County.
Yarborough, a social studies teacher at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, and a deputy chief at South Media Fire Company, works to facilitate relationships between schools and fire companies for recruitment purposes. When the two connected, Lesniak said Yarborough recommended speaking with the Springfield Township School District's superintendent, MaryJo Yannacone. It was apparently a small world as Yannacone formerly served as principal of Strath Haven High School, where Yarborough teaches.
"So coming into Springfield, when I learned that we were struggling to recruit new volunteers to our three firehouses, I wanted to get involved right away in trying to help our students, to see the benefit of volunteerism, first of all, and serving your community." Yannacone said. "And second of all, to recognize how important emergency services and volunteer companies are to the overall health of a community."
Representatives from the Flourtown, Oreland and Wyndmoor fire companies sat down with Yarborough, Yannacone, and Springfield Township High School Principal Charles Rittenhouse last September at the Oreland Fire Company in Oreland for a brainstorming session to further recruitment efforts of area first responder agencies' junior firefighting programs.
"The goal of this is to obviously get more students more involved in volunteerism and first responders," Lesniak said. "The School District of Springfield Township is willing to offer high school credit for students who participate in the program."
First Responders Day
With assistance from Stephen Chinta, the district's campus safety supervisor, an ongoing dialogue has continued over the past year, Yannacone said. The school district launched its inaugural First Responders Day last year where students got a better understanding of the work first responder agencies do through demonstrations, vehicle tours and visits at the school. Firefighters also set up a table last year for the high school's club information session, where students could take a look at equipment and recruitment brochures.
Additionally, 11 volunteer firefighters make up the membership of the first responders club, a group started last year at Springfield Township High School. Members meet twice per week during the school year to discuss fire safety, training tactics and event planning.
"We want the community to understand that we are in partnership with all of our local fire companies, and it's our goal to make sure that they have what they need so that our families are able to reap the benefits of that," Yannacone said.
Basic training requires 200 hours of classroom and hands-on learning, Lesniak said of Oreland Fire Company's program. Students 16-to-18 years old are eligible to participate in the department's junior firefighter program. Once members turn 18 years old, they can graduate from junior firefighters to active firefighters.
Educational materials for the junior firefighter program span the gamut, Lesniak said, ranging from fire behavior to handling hazardous materials to first aid to navigating high ropes. Other practical knowledge aims to instill helpful habits for junior firefighters, Lesniak said, emphasizing the importance of checking equipment daily and cleaning the firehouse.
Life skills learned
Lesniak stressed that firefighting offers "life skills" and connections with other members of the fire company that might help teens later down the line. He noted that "a volunteer member who owns their own business, or is involved in a certain skill or a trade where the student would be able to talk with that member and get advice or learn or maybe an opportunity to work with them."
"It's definitely not just out there on the fire truck calls, it's all the behind the scenes skills that we, we learn and teach," Lesniak said.
In addition to offering academic credit, Yarborough stressed how experiential learning and relationships like these allow students to gain exposure to firefighting as a potential profession.
"It's not that what I'm doing is new or that this partnership is new, it's that this partnership doesn't require additional resources on the part of the school. It doesn't require a the building of a separate curriculum per se," she said. "It's providing students with the opportunity to earn academic credit for service that they're already providing to their community."
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The yearlong recruitment efforts have proved positive for the local fire companies as the partnership continues to flourish between the school district and first responder agencies.
"I think that community service organizations are the lifeblood of any community ... and it's important for our families," Yannacone said. "Not only are our students getting involved, but many of their extended family members are now getting involved. So parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors start to see the value and to learn more about the fire companies and what their needs are."
Speaking on the new numbers, said there's been three new junior firefighters at Oreland, two at Flourtown and at least one at Wyndmoor.
"It helps to build resiliency in the community, the more that we can build a community ... the more that the residents are prepared for emergencies, the better and the safer the community will be," Lesniak said.
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