Explorer program breeds next generation of firefighters in Calif.

Capt.: 12 to 15 newer firefighters had their start in program

Ryan Hagen
San Bernardino County Sun

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Seconds after the fire truck screeched to a stop, Leon Montoya bounded out.

He stood six feet away as firefighters and paramedics helped a man who had collapsed onto a patch of grass and couldn't get up, taking mental note of the way they kept the fallen man calm.

He nodded thoughtfully as Capt. Jason Serrano quickly confirmed from bystanders that the two calls from the street — one for a "man down" and another for a seizure — were about the same person, and he wondered aloud about the handheld computer Serrano typed everything into as he worked.

Once paramedics put the man in an ambulance and rushed him to St. Bernardine Medical Center, 17-year-old Leon asked his first question since leaving the station:

"Do you need any help?"

Then he quickly returned a bag of emergency supplies to the truck, climbed in and continued soaking up everything he could from the crew of San Bernardino Fire Department Station 224. The firefighters were letting him spend the day, but both they and Leon were hoping it was an introduction to a life as a firefighter.

"This is an opportunity to test-drive the department," said Serrano, who is transitioning into a position as head of the department's Explorers program for aspiring firefighters from about 16 to 21 years old. "Our goal as a Fire Department is to start communication with our youth early."

Leon is still waiting to hear back on his application to the Explorers program - applications are accepted during the first two weeks of April, August and December, so that Explorers can train in groups.

In the meantime, the junior at San Bernardino High School took advantage of a day off school to learn as much as he could about daily life in a field he's yearning to enter.

"I'm grateful they offered their time to me," Leon said. "I've wanted to be a firefighter for a couple years, because I like helping people. I didn't really know what you need to do to become a firefighter before now."

Getting a firefighter job is a long process, requiring steps including EMT training and graduation from a fire academy - such as the one offered at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa - before most departments will consider hiring.

The Explorer program, an offshoot of Boy Scouts offered by most fire and police departments, adds another stage before that, but it offers a big step up, Serrano said.

"Twelve to 15 of our newer firefighters were Explorers, including myself," Serrano said. "It is a tremendous head start."

Recent classes have included only about six students, but Serrano is trying to ramp that up to 30.

Explorers meet at the station after school twice a month to learn lessons from how to treat basic bleeding and broken bones to how to extract a crashed vehicle.

But the advantage isn't just the basic skills Explorers can put on their resume, said Battalion Chief Mike Bilheimer — it's the early positive influence.

"The real intention is to incorporate these things in impressionable kids, before they make mistakes," Bilheimer said.

Leon, an Honor Roll student who said he mostly resists the negative pressure from many classmates, still wishes he could have latched onto the program a little earlier.

"I made some decisions I shouldn't have," he said, including getting a tattoo on his neck. "I don't know why. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time."

He'll have to remove the tattoo before firefighting becomes an option, Bilheimer said.

"We do not hire people with (visible) tattoos," he told Leon. "What may be perfectly acceptable in your circles may be offensive to an elderly woman who's having a heart attack, and that's her first impression."

Leon said he understands, although he doesn't want to remove it just so he can fit regulations.

"I can't change for anyone else," he said. "I have to do it for myself."

The more people the Fire Department encourages to change for themselves, the better it is for the city and the department, Bilheimer said.

"It makes us all stronger," he said.

Copyright 2012 San Bernardino County Sun

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