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Fire dept. gets started on recruiting early with camp for kids

The second Teen Summer Camp brought dozens of children to the department to mingle with personnel and experience the business end of a fire hose

By Eric Pera
The Ledger

LAKELAND, Fla. — For Apollo Allison, the task was more difficult than imagined — breaking open a car door with a hydraulic rescue tool nicknamed the Jaws of Life.

It was only a simulation exercise, and the only heavy lifting involved donning a helmet and jacket, but 10-year-old Apollo was both exhausted and intrigued about a future as a firefighter for the Lakeland Fire Department.

"(The job) is about saving people,” he said. “I don’t know how they do that (work in heavy gear). It’s so hot and we’re in the shade.”

The second Teen Summer Camp on Friday brought dozens of children to the department’s headquarters on Lake Mirror to mingle with personnel and experience the business end of a fire hose, among other tasks.

Conceived by Douglas Riley, the department’s assistant chief of operations, the four-hour event is designed as a recruiting tool, especially targeting minorities and girls.

Riley welcomed campers with a short pep talk beneath a shaded bay, though a number of demonstrations were held outdoors in full sun.

“Ask a lot of questions, we want you guys to leave here with a really good understanding of what the Lakeland Fire Department is,” Riley said. “Hopefully, some day when you get out of high school you’ll consider a career here.”

Minorities make up 7 percent of the Lakeland department’s personnel, higher than the national average of 4 percent, said department spokeswoman Janel Vasallo. Still, the department aims to better those numbers and attract more women.

“We don’t hire based on that, but we’re just trying to get more applicants,” she said. “And the theory is to get them early.”

Buoyed by the promise of a pizza lunch, dozens of children separated into groups, ready to take on any task.

Campers seemed to enjoy their experience, which included everything from brushing fire engines with soap and water, to forcing open a heavy, metal door and learning about life-saving medical equipment.

“You guys are good at this,” firefighter Jesse Baldwin said to one pint-sized crew from the James J. Musso unit of a local Boys and Girls Club as they took long-handled scrub brushes to Engine 12.

“It’s the cleanest it’s been in years,” he told them.

Fighting fires takes up only about 2 percent of a firefighter’s time, Vasallo said, with the bulk of duties involving medical calls, extracting accident victims from vehicles, and cleaning and maintaining equipment.

Camper Zoey Hoffecker, 12, said she enjoyed scrubbing down the fire truck, which is important to the overall job.

“I thought it was fun, a good exercise,” she said. "(It’s important) to keep your fire truck clean, so you can get to the fire in time and save some lives.”

For Apollo, the experience proved something of a dilemma. He said he’s seriously considering other careers, including scientist, archaeologist and inventor.

“There’s one problem,” he said, “my career list is pretty long.”

And now he has to add firefighter to the list of possibilities.

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