Stanwood students learn automobile rescue, and sparks fly

ARLINGTON — A group of Stanwood High School students spent the morning of Jan. 12 ripping out windshields and prying off car doors. Sparks flew as metal buckled and glass shattered.

The teens were learning how to cut into cars and rescue people who become trapped after crashes. They are fire cadets, taking a year-long class at the high school that’s taught by crews from Camano Island Fire and Rescue.

The students practiced in the classroom with hydraulic tools — sometimes called the “jaws of life” — before last week’s drill at Pick-n-Pull, an auto parts store in Arlington.

“Just all of the sparks flying off, I’ve never done something like this before,” said senior Allegra Butters, 17. “It’s a new experience and I really like it.”

The class helps the fire department recruit new members, but the crews also try to teach the teens life lessons, said Bobby Guadamuz, a 32-year-old firefighter who runs the class.

He would know. He took it in high school.

Guadamuz helped the Camano fire department restart the class after a hiatus, Assistant Fire Chief Levon Yengoyan said.

“I love it when we get feedback from the parents in the change they’ve seen from their kids,” Yengoyan said. “It’s a little bit more respect, a little more responsibility, the kinds of things that are going to benefit them in whatever career they wind up choosing.”

Volunteer firefighter Travis Mason is the lead instructor. He sees it as giving back. He was a cadet before graduating from Stanwood High School in 2013.

“I just loved everything about it, and I made a final decision,” he said. “This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”

This year’s class has around two dozen students, including four young women. About a quarter of the courses offered at the high school involve vocational training.

On Jan. 12, that meant the abuse of a busted-up Toyota Corolla with flattened tires and doors that had been stripped for parts.

Firefighter Erich Schweiger oversaw the action, giving careful instructions, hinge-by-hinge and bolt-by-bolt.

“It is fun, isn’t it?” he asked.

Students in their second year of the class get to act as officers, supervising the work of others. That includes senior Chaysten Morgan, 18.

Morgan watched closely as junior Sara Wilkinson, 16, used an axe-like tool called a Halligan bar to break the back window.

“It’s a ripping motion, it’s not sawing,” Morgan told her. The tool “will rip through this like it’s nothing.”

Later, Wilkinson aimed a hydraulic power tool at the metal post connecting the passenger doors.

“Don’t be afraid to flip it and get some help with it,” Schweiger told her. “Get somebody else there. If it starts to pull you in, just let off the throttle.”

Wilkinson let out a whoop as the metal snapped free. The class has persuaded her to become a firefighter, she said. She likes learning about fire behavior and the different kinds of equipment.

“It’s crazy how you can just take a car apart,” she said.

Wilkinson was feeling the adrenaline during the drill, and thinking about what would happen if she was actually trying to rescue someone who was injured.

“Even though it’s practice, it still gets you,” she said. “You get like, ‘We gotta go.’ ”

Senior Blaine Halvorson, 18, is in his second year as a cadet. He plans to pursue studies in paramedicine.

“Now I have that priority and independence to lead the first-years,” he said. “I’m a lot more involved in leadership and I get to teach.”

Senior Keegan Carlson, 17, also plans to study paramedicine. He is a cadet with Camano Island, in addition to the North County Regional Fire Authority, based in Stanwood.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “Right now my senior year is pretty much just firefighting. I’m loving it.”

Carlson feels lucky that he’s figured out his path so soon in life, he said. The drill was the second time he’d handled the vehicle rescue tools.

“Just knowing I am holding something more powerful than me, it’s pretty scary, but I just stayed strong and confident and handling the situation,” he said. “… This class builds your confidence, like huge.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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