Aspiring teen firefighters put to training test

ASTORIA, Ore. — It’s not every day you see firefighters balancing bowling balls in a fire hose stream, but at the annual MERTS Cadet Days training camp instructors pull out all the stops in their lessons.

While they may look like souped-up garden hoses, fire hoses are far more powerful and difficult to handle. Stop paying attention and the blast from the hose can knock you down.

Fire cadets working in teams must learn how to lug the hoses into position and then how to control how much water is flowing and where it’s spraying. One exercise has them play “hose soccer” — trying to push a bowling ball back toward the other team with hose. Another requires them to push the bowling ball through a zig-zag obstacle course.

“Being able to master nozzle control makes you a more valuable member of the team,” instructor Mike Karvia, division training chief at Pacific County Fire District 1, told the cadets Thursday morning.

He also put on a bit of a show, shooting a fire hose straight up while balancing a bowling ball in the water stream, raising and lowering the ball by turning a lever.

“It’s all about skill and manipulation of the fire stream,” Karvia told the students during the demonstration.

“It’s a challenge,” cadet Rylee Jenkins of R.A. Long High School said after his turn at hose soccer. “The trick is the person behind you (holding the hose) and communicating about what you’re doing.”

Jenkins was one of more than 80 Southwest Washington high school students from 18 schools who are spending three days this week at the training camp as part of their fire science course studies. They get their live fire certification at the end of the camp, enabling them to serve as official volunteer firefighters if they choose. Some, who have finished their second year of camp, can even move straight into firefighting jobs or internships.

Kelso High student Dale Maines spent part of Thursday morning learning step-by-step instructions about where to place his hands to best crawl through a small window in full fire gear. In severe cases, instructor Travis Dick, a firefighter with Clark County Fire District 6, told them, you’ll actually slide down ladders to get away from flames.

“It’s all about grip,” Maines said after maneuvring through the window in a controlled fall. The most challenging so far, though, had been the search and rescue missions inside the live fire building. Crews had to purposely let their air run low and call “may day” to learn about rescues.

The “MERTS” training, held at Clatsop Community College’s Marine and Environment Research and Training Station in Astoria and Camp Rilea in Seaside each spring, was begun by then Cowlitz 2 Fire &Resuce Chief Jack Smith in 2004. The goal is to give cadets more “hands on” training and help them meet all the requirements for being a volunteer firefighter in Washington. The first year there were just 16 cadets; in recent years enrollment has been more than 100 from Cowlitz, Clark and Pacific counties.

Students spend their days learning how to break through locked doors, how to get into emergency fire shelters used during wildland fires and how to maneuver through a specially-designed building that fills with smoke and has flames shooting out from walls and the ceiling. Camp started Wednesday and concludes today.

It’s not just all about fire-fighting skills.

The cadets also go through several exercises designed to improve teamwork, communication and critical thinking in a boot camp-like environment. Even if they don’t become firefighters, many camp graduates use the discipline and skills in jobs such as the military, police force or the medical field, said Lt. Kurt Stich of Cowlitz 2.

“You really work hard,” said cadet Nikki Schmidt, who attends Kelso High School and Three Rivers Christian School. “It’s different, but I like putting what I’ve learned (in class) into action.”

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