When Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Dusty Sims a few weeks ago put a call out for any 9th grader interested in joining the school’s prospective Fire Leadership Academy, 85 students showed up. The program is intended to have 30 seats when it starts at the high school in August, but the response—without word spreading through middle schools or at Matanzas High School yet—suggested to Sims that interest in the program will be very high.
That’s all Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito wanted to hear. He’s been working on the idea for two years. He’s a little tired of seeing the county’s fire and rescue services used as training grounds for other agencies. He’d rather develop his own farm team of eventual firefighters and paramedics, children of Flagler County who’d be almost ready to enter one a local fire department not long after graduation from high school.
The first class of the Fire Leadership Academy will be seated come early August, and will graduate in 2019.
“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do it and I finally got something,” Petito said, “and I’m so happy that Dusty is as excited as I am, because we have all the facilities, we have all the equipment, we have the instructors to be able to do this. We recently became state-certified through the state to do fire classes. We’re certified through the department of health to do EMT and paramedic classes. We’re the regional training center for the American Heart [Association] to do CPR classes. We have people from all around the region that come to us for training, so why not give it to our kids, too.”
In County Administrator Craig Coffey’s words, Flagler has seen turn-over in its ranks result in a drain of qualified firefighters going to other agencies. With the fire academy producing large batches of recruits, local agencies could get their ranks filled, and “we could be an exporter of these kinds of career fields.”
A chance to turn the tide and produce more firefighter recruits than local departments are currently losing.
As currently designed, the program will not cost either the school district or Flagler County Fire Rescue any additional money to run, though it would generate revenue for the district: as a line of courses students will take for credit, the credits themselves will command some state dollars. Instruction will be provided by the county’s and, presumably—Petito said—by the Palm Coast and Flagler Beach fire departments, without, he said, requiring any additional staff. The fire chief said existing staff can parcel out the one hour a day that will be needed to provide instruction at the high school, though how that arrangement will work in subsequent years, when additional classes will result in two, then three and four hours of instruction per day, is unclear.
The program will begin in August for 9th graders with Emergency Planning and Response, a one-credit class. As in subsequent years, students in the academy would still be taking all the other course requirements for high school students, but they would have that one class per day in the academy. In 10th Grade, they’ll take Firefighting I, the first step in their emergency medical responder certification. Once they’ve taken that class, they can volunteer with local fire departments, doing ride-alongs and pulling hoses or similar light duty, but not actually fighting fires.
In 11th grade, they’ll take Fiurefighting II. Depending on where they are in their course work, they can begin dual enrollment course work at Flagler Technical Institute or at a local college so they can also be on their way to become Emergency Medical Technicians once they leave high school. They will not be able to sit the Firefighter II and EMT assessments until they are high school graduates and 18 years old.
In their senior year, academy students will take a course called Firefighter III. No such course exists outside the academy in the prep work to become a firefighter, Sims said, but the school has to code its courses a certain way, and that was the name given its senior level course.
To remain in the program, students must maintain a GPA of 2.5 or better. “But we’re obviously going to ask them for better than that,” Petito said. “We’re going to push them pretty hard, and a lot of the team concept is going to be pushed on them with a lot of leadership stuff.”
“We’ll have them well on their way to career readiness at the end of this coursework,” Sims said.
The chief and the principal spoke of the program as running on what they called “pramilitary” principles, based on what they both saw at a similar academy they observed at Wellington High School in Palm Beach County.
“They explained it to us this way,” Sims said. “If we have a student in the class that does not want to follow the directions or the order of the captain or the chain of command and they tell them to go into a burning house and they say you cannot open that door even though there’s 25 people on the others side of that door, if you open that door the house is going to go up in flames faster, however that guy can’t follow a command because he wants to open that door and save those 25 people, and all 25 of them will pass away because [he] will not follow the chain of command. They say it’s imperative that it would be run as a paramilitary type of organization “in order to prevent such potentially fatal mistakes.
Members of the academy would have their own uniforms, similar to students in the ROTC program. FPC is planning to set up the program in the school’s 600 building, where the area used might end up looking like a fire house, as is the case at Wellington High School.
Petito presented the Fire Leadership Academy idea to the county commission at the beginning of the month, Sims presented it, with Petito at his side, to the school board in mid-February. Both panels were impressed and eager to see the program go forward.
“It’s local training for a local need,” County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. “The big problem we’re always dealing with the schools is kids go away to college, we have nothing to bring them back to.”
“That’s what this is going to change,” Petito said.
The academy, Sims said, “is going to appeal to some kids that have somehow lost their way because they just haven’t found their passion yet. I think they’re going to really fall in love with the instructors that are going to stand before them, that are living this out day to day, and the passion that these guys I’ve seen them have for their jobs and their professions, each and every day.”
When Petito mentioned to the school board that he’d been working on the program for two years, he heard an unexpected earful from Sue Dickinson, one of the board members. She was thrilled by the fire academy idea and was behind it entirely, as were her colleagues. But, she told Petito, “you say you’ve bene working on it for two years to get the program started. I’ve been working on getting a nurse program started for 33 years? But I’m going to tell you, and the rest of them haven’t heard it yet, Port Charlotte has an LPN program in their high school. Their students took care of my dad last week, and those kids are in high school. And when they graduate from high school, just like I did a few years ago, they were able to sit the exam immediately out of high school. So be ready guys because you’re all taking a field trip to Port Charlotte to check out their technical school as well for the nursing side of it. So you only had to wait a short time. I won’t be physically in Flagler County when the LPN program comes, but it’s coming, now that I found it.”