Some 17 years ago the Palm Coast Fire Department had a training and recruitment program for teens interested in a career in the fire services. It ran for five years, losing steam as the stream of students dried up and support for the program within the department weakened. Now, the department is reviving the program for youths ages 13 to 17 under the guidance of Firefighter Paramedic Joseph Fajardo.
“He came to us with an idea and we’re letting him run with it,” said Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte, whose leadership style entrusts staff at every level to to initiate and develop programs that can further the purpose of the department. Recruiting young talent that could be with the department for entire careers is one of those goals.
So the Palm Coast Fire Department taking applications from students ages 13 to 17 for the new Junior Firefighter Program, which will start next year. Space is limited to 20, but those who enroll can stay with the program until they turn 18, at which point they can become volunteers with the department, and after that, potentially, professional firefighters. The youth program provides hands-on experience, but also requires a certain commitment.
Students will attend weekly meetings from 6-8 p.m. at Fire Station 25 on Belle Terre Parkway, covering topics from a curriculum established through the Exploring Post program. It will be staffed and managed by the career members of the fire department. Students will also have one field day per month on a scheduled Saturday, from 8 a.m. to noon, for hands on skills and operations.
“This program can be a valuable recruitment tool helping us find a new stream of volunteers, interns and community supporters that will be the backbone of our department for years to come,” Fajardo said. “It is important for our department to get youth involved and the positive impact it will have, not only on the community, but on the individuals themselves. A junior program is a great tool for recruiting potential future members and leaders of Palm Coast, serving as a feeder for the fire department intern program.”
The program is not in competition with the Fire Academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School, but rather a complement to it: students enrolled in the academy are welcome to apply to be in the fire department’s program as it would provide the natural steps in the progression toward becoming a firefighter. The hours of the academy and the department’s program do not conflict, either. “We can bridge them, so if they have a student in the high school program and they want to be in the Explorer Post, say they want to do it in the evenings and weekends, we can accommodate that,” Forte said.
The department has been studying a youth recruitment program for the past year to complement its own quite successful internship program. Some 15 or 16 firefighter-paramedics have been hired out of the department’s internship program over the years, including the poster child of the department’s recruiting efforts: John Overton, the former Flagler Palm Coast High School student who also was a star student of FPC’s academy. He went through all the steps at the fire department, and two months ago became one of its career firefighters.
It didn’t last: the Jacksonville Fire Department just hired him away, essentially profiting from years of investments by the school district and the fire department. But Forte was more proud than surprised: he’s known all along that Overton, who seemed to have been a permanent presence at Station 25 even when he wasn’t yet employed, had his eyes set on a big career in a big department. But of all those interns the department has hired, Overton was only the second to leave, so the program is paying rich dividends in keeping local talent local all the same.
Recently, two students in FPC’s academy turned 18 and joined the department’s internship program. “Our hope is they have a long 30 year carrer with us after that,” Forte said. A firefighter-paramedic starts at a salary of $43,000 a year.
To qualify for the new program, applications are due the first of the year and can be picked up at Fire Station 25. The Junior Firefighters will sit for a formal panel interview for acceptance into the program. If chosen, Junior Firefighters will use real fire equipment as well as be CPR certified and practice medical skills and evaluations. They will also be required to attend physical training prior to each class. Students must also maintain a 2.0 GPA and are required to bring report cards to meetings when they are issued.
“Establishing a youth program will help our department form stronger bonds within our community and teach participants critical skills such as leadership, teamwork and responsibility,” Forte said. “In addition, junior programs provide youth with invaluable experience and education in fire and emergency medical services, and members of these programs often become life-long supporters of their department.”
Forte said he does not expect the youth program to lose interest as it did a decade and a half ago. The department is larger, with more supportive employees, and the fire academy has created a more natural source of students readying to enter the firefighter-paramedic field.
For more information, contact the Palm Coast Fire Department at 386-986-2300.