A Penhold high school student was among 18 firefighters sharpening their skills at Red Deer’s training facility on Saturday.
Nicole Thomson is one of three high school students from the town to enroll in Penhold Fire Department’s cadet program.
Penhold Fire Chief Jim Pendergast believes they are the only volunteer department in Alberta with the program, which allows teens to train as a firefighter and earn five credits towards their high school diploma.
Cadets undertake the training but do not respond to calls. They can help out at the station after calls by cleaning and putting away equipment among other tasks and when they turn 18 they can join the department as a volunteer.
Thomson said she was inspired to join by two high school friends who were already involved.
“It’s really fun and it’s a great opportunity to learn about the fire service and train with everybody,” said the 17-year-old.
While most volunteer firefighters have regular jobs — many of them in oilpatch fire safety jobs — Thomson has to balance high school and homework with her training.
“It’s kind of hard, but I keep up with it,” she said.
All of the regular volunteers have been very supportive and she is looking forward to joining their ranks when she’s finished high school. She also plans to get her emergency medical responder training before deciding on a career, possibly as a full-time firefighter.
Pendergast said training is a huge part of the job for volunteers. It takes 12 to 14 courses of 40 hours each to become a certified Level 2 firefighter.
Those being run through their paces on Saturday were working on their Level 1 certification, which involves about 280 hours of training in all. They began in February and the weekend tested practical skills such as fighting structure and vehicle fires, rescue and ventilation, and getting out of smoke-filled buildings while disoriented.
Penhold is better off than many departments with 35 volunteers, including eight women, available.
It’s a huge time investment. Volunteers are expected to have the same training as regular firefighters.
“The commitment is a very big commitment because the fire doesn’t know if you’re full-time or volunteer. So you have to be trained exactly the same as a full-time firefighter,” said Pendergast.
That dedication comes with the payoff that they are helping those in need in their communities.
“It’s very rewarding and the comradeship is awesome. They become really close as a group.”
In Penhold, which is growing quickly, the number of calls has been rising just as rapidly. Last year, more than 160 calls were handled by the department, which responds to medical calls as well as fires and accidents within the town.
Through an agreement with Alberta Health Service, Penhold volunteers can act as medical first responders. Minimum training is basic first aid, but most have emergency medical responder training and are further certified as emergency medical technicians.
Jessy Rochette, a 28-year-old mechanic, has been a Penhold firefighter for about 18 months.
He had friends on the department and decided to join.
“It’s pretty rewarding. You get to learn and a lot of days you get to help others,” he said.
The calls aren’t always easy but as a group they talk through incidents afterwards, which helps to deal with issues that arise.
Charity Tyrer, 25, joined after getting her emergency medical responder training.
“I was really interested in the medical side and emergency response in general,” said Tyrer, who works as a safety supervisor with an oilfield services company.
“It ended up being something super awesome. I can use my medical skills and firefighting skills both,” said Tyrer, who has been a Penhold firefighter for six months.
The training is intensive, involving a couple of nights a week and many weekends.
“But it’s fun,” she said.