Michigan 4-H Fire Explorers Club comes to the rescue while building future firefighters
With a diminishing number of volunteers in emergency services, including firefighters and emergency medical technician crews, one Upper Peninsula township faced a growing problem. To address the issue, Thompson Volunteer Fire Department fire Chief Jon Burk partnered with Schoolcraft County’s Michigan State University (MSU) Extension 4-H program to create a unique solution: the 4-H Fire Explorers program, where teens ages 16 to 19 explore the profession with hands-on career training.
“If I can get young teens and adults involved with community programs, maybe they will stay involved or return to volunteer in emergency services after college,” Burk said.
The 4-H Fire Explorers program currently has five teens involved. They meet twice a month: once to attend a monthly fire department meeting and once to learn and practice the skills that it takes to pass the firefighter entrance exam. During the practice sessions, the youth go through a series of exercises to help prepare them for an emergency. Training topics include accident traffic control, fire truck operation, chain of command, and search and rescue.
In addition to their scheduled meetings, the 4-H Fire Explorers program members (known as “Explorers”) get hands-on fire experience in another way: the youth are able to go to certain fire scenes. They must first be invited to the fire by Burk and receive permission from their parents, as well as be transported by Burk’s wife, another Michigan 4-H volunteer. Although there are restrictions to where the youth can go and what they can do at the fire scene, the Explorers wear the same gear as the firefighters and get to experience firefighting firsthand.
“Explorers are not allowed in what we call the ‘hot zone,’” Burk said. “But they do have many other important responsibilities and once the Explorers have completed many hours of training, they can help control grass fires.”
At the fire scene, the teens are tasked with preparing the fire truck for operations and setting up portable ponds, which are designed to provide back-up facilities for firefighting when water supplies are low. The Explorers also help change air tanks on self-contained breathing apparatus packs and assist with traffic control.
Aside from learning the duties of a firefighter, the Explorers also look for ways to give back to their community. In October 2016, they gave a presentation about fire prevention to local elementary school children and in February, the youth put together a distracted driving presentation for an area high school.
“Youth oftentimes will listen closer to a message delivered by a group of teens, rather than an adult, which makes these presentations meaningful to both the audience and the teens who gain public speaking experience,” Jill Connin, MSU Extension Schoolcraft County 4-H program coordinator, said. “We want area youth to see peers serving in their communities to foster an environment where teens feel comfortable joining a service organization and making an investment in our community’s future.”
While Burk hopes the club will ultimately become a solution to the volunteer firefighter shortage in his community, he remarks that the main takeaway he would like youth to learn from the 4-H Fire Explorers program is teamwork and the way it feels to do something for someone else.
“I want them to learn how to meet people on what could be the worst day of their lives and make it better,” Burk said.
The 4-H Fire Explorers program is the first of its kind in Michigan, and the program may be replicated in others areas of the state as well. Though unique in its nature, it is one of the many Michigan 4-H programs that allow youth to explore careers, prepare for leadership positions, hone decision-making skills and build many other important life skills necessary for a successful future.