Students at Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School (PSO) who are interested in pursuing a future in firefighting can now get a solid start as part of their curriculum.
This year, the school began offering its newly developed course – the Junior Structural Firefighter Program.
It’s 120 hours of intensive training in the basic theories of structural firefighting strategies and how to apply them; fire scene and apparatus safety; communications; fire behaviour; fire tools and rescue.
Students finish the course with basic firefighter certification, which is recognized at any fire hall as an entry level requirement.
John Murray, a teacher at the school and a volunteer firefighter with the 108 Mile Ranch Volunteer Fire Department, instructs the course and was also the driving force in having it approved by the school board.
He’s a qualified instructor who trains his students to the National Fire Protection Association standards, using College of the Rockies curriculum.
Murray underwent specialized training for his certification, which spanned five weekends and was done on his own time.
As part of the course, students undergo forest wildfire training through the Wildfire Management Branch of the Ministry of Forests (MOF) and will finish with S100 Fire Suppression certification. It’s the minimum requirement for wildfire fighting.
Students are also given the opportunity to challenge the ministry’s physical exam, which is a mandatory requirement for acceptance by the MOF as a firefighting crew member.
The PSO program training is rigorous, with half the time spent in the classroom and the other half doing hands-on exercises.
The physical component is done wearing full turnout gear and Murray compares it to working out in a parka with your face covered with a rubber mask.
One of the exercises is entanglement training and it has students dressed in heavy turnout gear, with an air tank strapped to their back, and breathing apparatus covering their face. A blindfold is put over their head and they are sent squirming on their back through a tangle of wires which simulate a collapsed ceiling, Murray says.
“We train for the worst-case scenario. They learn to do everything as would be expected in a real situation. If you trained at any fire hall, you’d be doing the exact same thing.”
Murray says the program has received great support from local volunteer fire departments, and it’s a win-win situation for both parties.
Departments in Lac la Hache, 100 Mile House and 108 Mile Ranch have each donated equipment, including dated turnout gear and surplus helmets. Some training is also done in the 100 Mile House Fire-Rescue hall, using its equipment.
In turn, 100 Mile, 108 Mile and Watch Lake/North Green Lake departments have each gained one student from the program as a junior firefighter, while the Forest Grove department has three, Murray explains.
“The halls are really enthusiastic. Every hall in the area, pretty well, is looking for new recruits.”
Murray has a total of 33 students enrolled in the program, and they are split between two classes. The group includes half a dozen girls, which, he says, is nice to see.
“Some of the best firefighters are women. The sector has been male-dominated, but it’s changing.”
Grade 11 student Kim Rottluff is one of the females taking the course, and she says it’s challenging. She was too afraid to do the entanglement exercise the first time it was presented to the class, but Murray eased her through it the next day.
“When I first put on the air mask, I was so scared. I thought I would cry, but I did it the next time. This course has been hard, but I’ve learned to overcome my fears.”
The athletic Rottluff initially signed up for the course to help herself keep fit, while in the back of her mind is a desire to work on a forest firefighting crew at some point.
She is surprised at how much fun the class has been.
“It’s exceeded my expectations. I like the hands-on training.”
Grade 12 student Michael Buschlen is a junior volunteer firefighter at the Forest Grove fire department and plans to pursue structural firefighting as a career following graduation from PSO.
“It’s something I love. It’s fascinating. My uncle was a forest firefighter and he’s definitely a role model for me. I respect him.”
Buschlen says he has enjoyed the physical training and notes it keeps him in shape.
“You have to be pretty fit to do this.”
He adds taking the course has bolstered his confidence and prepared him for the next step.
Murray says the class is open to all students, but it’s a lot of work and many don’t stick it out. He’s seen character development and confidence levels rise in those who do.
As part of the program, each student must do 30 hours of community service, as a way of paying back for the support they receive through the community. Murray says the program would not have been successful without the outside help it has received.