ROCHELLE – Dalton Peters, a 16-year-old cadet with the Genoa-Kingston Fire Department, summed up his career outlook nicely.
“This is the rest of my life,” Dalton said.
And it’s on a faster track than others have enjoyed, thanks to the overhaul of the Kishwaukee Education Consortium’s fire sciences program.
The 13 students who learned how to free victims from car crashes Tuesday morning at the old junkyard at Fourth Avenue and First Street are among the first KEC classes that can earn 31 credits toward college in two years at the consortium on Kishwaukee College’s campus, 21193 Malta Road.
The consortium’s agreement with Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove took effect in January, so students who began in January and are taking classes through the summer can secure all 31 credits by the time they graduate from high school. That will put them more than halfway to their associate degree and on track to go to paramedic school then sit for the firefighter certification test by age 21 – the legal age to be a full-time, paid firefighter.
The fire science program serves students from the DeKalb, Genoa-Kingston, Hiawatha, Rochelle and Sycamore school districts. Students take the basic operation firefighter course their junior year, earning 16 credits. Seniors can take the nine-credit emergency medical technician basics course or take several other courses and become certified through the state fire marshal’s office.
Peters and his 17-year-old cousin, Brennan, already volunteer with the G-K department, and have a unique arrangement with District 424: They can leave school to go out on calls when they’re needed. They both estimate they went out on about 25 calls as juniors this past year.
Those calls, and this early exposure, have confirmed that they want to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and save lives for a living.
“There have been multiple calls like that, that have made me more sure,” Brennan said.
“This is reality,” Dalton said. “This is what you don’t see on TV. This is the bad side of it. It’s not, ‘This percent is OK,’ but ‘This person is dead. They didn’t make it.’ ”
Trevor Yaeger, a 17-year-old senior at DeKalb High School, is a cadet with the Cortland department. Although he’s not allowed to go out on calls during the school day, he estimates he responds to three to four calls a week – while training every Monday night.
“I like this kind of stuff,” he said. “Working on car accidents, it’s cool learning how to help people who are injured in them, and to help people to get out.”
Keith Fritz, a firefighter of 27 years, the past 19 with the DeKalb Fire Department, where he’s a lieutenant, is the KEC program’s coordinator. He said whereas the program once was dominated by DeKalb and Sycamore personnel, it has expanded to include invaluable instructors from all stretches of the county and beyond. He said alumni from the program serve on the DeKalb, Sycamore, Cortland, Genoa-Kingston, Kirkland, Lynn-Scott-Rock, Malta, Ogle-Lee and Rochelle fire departments.
Galen Cardott, a retired firefighter from Lombard who’s now chief of the small-but-mighty department in the village of Steward, is one of the KEC program’s instructors, and he’s over the moon about what the program will do for his staffing woes.
“Before, we had to spend hours and hours and hours just getting them up to speed,” Cardott said. “Now, these guys will come in trained and ready to go.”
He said more than half of the 14 members on his all-volunteer staff are
45 years old or older.
“We have a lot of experience, but younger firefighters are just capable of doing a lot more work – it’s just reality,” he said. “With young blood coming in, it’s exciting.”
The KEC program previously was an articulated agreement with Rock Valley College, meaning students weren’t earning college credits or amassing as much practical training as they are now.
Another addition to the KEC curriculum is about to further assist the fire science program. In the fall, the revived construction program – which the consortium hasn’t had since 2010 – will convert a room that’s served a couple of different purposes, currently as the computer information systems center, into a room specifically for the fire sciences program.
Tom Crouch, KEC’s executive director, said he’s thrilled to have construction back, and hopeful it can grow from one session this fall into a full-time program of three sessions in the near future.
“Everybody in the industry we’re talking to is saying they’re turning jobs away,” Crouch said. “It’s a big skill set. There’s a lot of work to be done, and not enough people to fill the spots.”