BUCKSPORT — Dakota Field has a fear of heights, and for good reason. When the Bucksport resident was a kid, his father fell from a three-story building and went into a coma for a week and a half.
“I don’t have the best opinion of ladders,” said Field, which is surprising since he wants to become a firefighter.
Field is one of five students taking a new firefighting class at Bucksport High School. The program trains students aged 16 and up in the basic skills of the job. By the end of the school year, the students will be prepared to take exams to earn their national ProBoard Firefighter I/II certification.
If obtained, the certification will allow them to work as firefighters anywhere in Maine and in 30 states across the country.
“I got accepted to University of Maine-Farmington, and I plan on volunteering while I’m going there,” Field said.
But before the 18-year-old can become a firefighter, he’ll have to learn a few more things, such as how to conquer his fear of heights. Luckily, he has already made plenty of progress in that area.
“The first time I went on the ladder I was shivering, my knees were shaking,” Field said.
Another student helped him out.
“Roger was at the bottom holding it for me and he was just going ‘You can do this, don’t worry, don’t worry,” Field recalled, referring to classmate Roger Woodbridge.
That was only the second class of the program, but over time Field became more comfortable moving up and down the ladder. Now it’s one of the most meaningful skills he’s learned, he said.
“It’s nice to have a bunch of people at the bottom of the ladder saying ‘you can do this,’” said Field. “It’s a nice motivation.”
Charlie Wescott, a sophomore, shares Field’s fear of heights, and he too has made progress learning how to conquer it. The 16-year-old was inspired to take the class by his grandfather, who volunteered with the Orland Fire Department.
So far, one of Wescott’s favorite experiences in the class has been wearing turnout gear, which is what firefighters wear to a fire.
“I like how it feels on me,” he said. That’s a feeling Jared Bowden, one of the instructors, can relate to.
“It’s a uniform, a sense of pride,” Bowden said, before the start of class on Jan. 12. “You’re part of the team if you’re wearing it. Even if it is a different color for some guys,” he added, referring to the trainee turnout gear the cadets wear.
Bowden has been a firefighter for 12 years and a paramedic for six. In that time he’s taught plenty of adults how to fight fires. He said the high school kids learn just as well as adults, though sometimes in different ways.
“The cadets here listen and learn very well from PowerPoint and computer-based learning,” Bowden said. “Adults tend to learn better when they’re hands-on. These guys here learn that way, too, but they do it just about as well watching a video or a PowerPoint.”
Bowden is one of seven Bucksport firefighters teaching the course. The instructors take turns teaching classes, which prevents them from becoming swamped with work and calls.
“Having rotating instructors makes it easier to commit, and the students seem to like it,” said Capt. Chris Connor, another one of the instructors. “Any one of us could teach the class beginning to end, but really we all share the burden.”
Having so many qualified instructors is a big help when the lessons involve real flames.
“Dealing with live fire is high-risk,” Connor said. “We want to make sure it’s as safe as possible for the students, so having that many instructors in-house makes it a lot easier to provide a one-to-one instructor-student ratio.”
The word firefighting usually evokes images of men and women aiming hoses and charging into burning buildings. While the students might get a chance to do that once they’re certified, they have to learn the fundamentals first, Connor said.
“You don’t want someone who just learned how to use an Air-Pak an hour ago and throw them into fighting a burning building,” the instructor said, referring to the device firefighters use to breathe while fighting a fire. “We start with the basic stuff, like how to put your gear on properly. Then we get them into the Air-Paks so they get comfortable with them.”
“That way,” Connor continued, “it just becomes something they’re used to doing when the bell goes off.”
The basic stuff also includes learning how to deploy a ladder, how to read different types of smoke, how to search a structure while wearing an Air-Pak and how to tie ropes and knots for hoisting equipment how to deploy a ladder.
“It’s not just squirting water,” Bowden said about firefighting.
Some of the material, such as learning the basic elements of fire and building codes, even seems downright boring at first.
“Code is one of the most boring things to learn about in firefighting,” Bowden said to the Jan. 12 class, which firefighters Chris Grindle and John Gavelek dropped in on. “But it’s also one of the most important.”
“Everything in this building,” he continued, talking about the high school, “from doorways to exit signage to fire extinguishers to fire alarm systems to the way it’s constructed, that is all done in relation to a fire code or a building code. It is meant to keep people safe in the event of a fire and help prevent fires from starting.”
For an example, Bowden pointed out the double doors at the front of the high school. Large doors mean more people can exit a building quickly in case of a fire, he said.
If the doorways aren’t wide enough, or if the doors require pulling to open instead of pushing, the exit could be jammed by a crush of people trying to get through, he said.
“Twenty-five percent of fire victims are found within 6 feet of an exit,” Bowden said. Later, he added, “a lot of fire code can be traced to tragedies.”
The class covers essentially the same material as what’s taught to hopeful firefighters at the Hancock County Fire Academy, where the five-month training program concludes with a written exam and a skills exam.
“The culmination of all the skills you’ve been learning is that live fire at the end of the class,” Connor said.
A potential perk for the Fire Department is that graduates of the program could eventually become new employees.
“We can potentially teach five new firefighters who, when they graduate, will already be trained,” Connor said. “If we hired them, they would have the basic knowledge at least. It’s a big step for us.”