Public Safety Courses Provide Career Options for Students

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Noah Dennis is eager to get inside the smoke-filled house.

Dressed in full firefighter gear, the senior at Mahoning County Career and Technical Center is putting his training to the test in a realistic setting. He and 27 other seniors from the MCCTC and Choffin Career and Technical Center firefighter training program spent Monday morning performing search and rescue training at a home set for demolition on East Lucius Avenue in Youngstown.

The program is part of public safety courses offered to high school students. The courses begin in their junior year with criminal justice classes, during which the students aren’t permitted to use weapons. As seniors, they may then take the firefighting classes.

Students in their junior year take criminal justice classes. They cannot use weapons since trainees have to be 21 years old. Exposing students to criminal justice the first year and firefighting the second year gives them career options when they graduate.

When Dennis graduates, he knows he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a firefighter.

“Yes, I think it takes a special person. I just feel like it’s a thrill kind of, but it’s also about helping people. It’s how I was raised,” Dennis said. “You know, you’ll go out there and help people on their worst day.”

Thirteen instructors were on hand to train students from Choffin and MCCTC on search and rescue.

Lt. Courtney Kelly of the Youngstown Fire Department is the instructor for the program at Choffin. She hosted the search and rescue event for the 28 students and 13 instructors. It was the first time that students were outside of the familiar maze that is set up to mimic a home or a trailer they use for training.

They learned how to go into a house without a hose as a lifeline, but to use a hand to follow the wall while an axe is used to pound the floor for stability. They also learned to use the handle of the axe to sweep the floor for debris and possible victims as another firefighter holds onto the leg of the cadet in front of him.

Instructors practiced the techniques with students in the cleared out vacant structure on the first run before using machines to fill the house with smoke the second run through. Using the house is an essential piece of their training, Kelly said.

“This was better because it’s an actual house and more of a real-life experience for when you get out there,” said Dennis, who wants to stay in the area and hopefully work for the Sebring Fire Department.

Choffin student firefighters Marquise Clemons and Elijah Smith use search and rescue techniques in a vacant building.

Kelly said the program provides students with an alternative to college. Students can earn a Firefighter I or II certificate, the latter of which allows the student to become a full-time firefighter after passing a physical test and state exam.

For high school students, the classes are free. The adult program at MCCTC costs $1,400 for the Firefighter I certification, and another $850 for the second level training.

Kelly said that Youngstown Fire Department has hired two graduates from Choffin, another is working in Boardman and at least six others are working at volunteer departments or as emergency medical service, or EMS, responders.

Anthony Davis is a retired Ohio State Highway Patrolman who oversees the criminal justice program for MCCTC. He said a recent student was hired as an officer in Canfield and a few others have gone on to be military police in all branches.

Students can also take advantage of the college credit plus program to enroll at Eastern Gateway Community College or enter Youngstown State University’s police academy or pursue a four-year criminal justice degree, Davis said.

“I try to expose them because public safety is a career option. I try to show them different avenues. Most people are not in it to be rich but do need sustainable income. You work hard and can raise a family and that’s what we’re made of,” he said.

EGCC is a good collaborative partner in the programs, Davis said, because students come out of high school a year ahead and have access to the support and resources needed to be successful. The program offers training for police, corrections officers, dispatching or private security.

“Our kids want to stay home. They don’t feel forced to go different places,” Davis said. “Most of our kids want to stay here.”

The Mahoning County Land Bank partnered with the program to use the abandoned home for firefighter training. Steven Brown of the land bank said the house at 563 E. Lucius Ave. is set to be demolished Dec. 2. This is the first time the land bank has partnered with the technical centers, though city firefighters have used buildings on the demolition list for trainings.

“Partnering with them is imperative because it gives an opportunity for real life training rather than an obstacle course. It’s something students wouldn’t be able to get in the classroom,” Kelly said.

Brown said the land bank is always looking to be helpful for city firefighter training, and now for students. “The property is going to be demolished anyway, so it’s able to be to good use,” Brown said.

The program is run differently than most high school programs as it is paramilitary. Students are required to do physical fitness training, some marching and address superiors as “sir” or “ma’am,” as well as work as a team.

“What was that?” Capt. Gene Cook asks as he turns toward a student in a group about 25 feet away. “What did you say?”

The student is uncomfortable like a kid caught doing something wrong. The student cussed, other students say. The result will be pushups when the student returns to class.

Cook, a Youngstown firefighter for 22 years and instructor, said when one person messes up, the entire group suffers the consequences.

“When you do something you’re not supposed to, it can have an effect on everyone, sometimes dangerous effects,” Cook said. “We want them to understand it and hold each other accountable.”

MCCTC Criminal Justice Instructor Anthony Davis and Sebring senior Noah Dennis.

Kelly said the paramilitary-style of class has helped turnaround students who came in with some disciplinary issues.

Blake Hilbon MCCTC, wanted to be a firefighter since he was young, he said. His pastor is a firefighter.

“It’s amazing. I love the hands-on learning experience. Hopefully I can use this and take it to the real world and help some people out,” he said.

Having experienced instructors who have years of experience is invaluable to Hillbon. “It means a lot because he’s a somebody and I’m a nobody and he’s trying to make me a somebody. It’s nice to see he cares.”

When Hillbon entered the house filled with smoke, “I went from seeing everything to seeing nothing,” he recalled. At first he tried to remember the training he had just done in the house without the smoke, but admits that he drew a blank at first. “It was all too quick.”

Mitchell Durr of Austintown agreed, but instructors taught the students to use thermal imaging devices to make it easier to see and expedite the process of finding victims, he said.

“Using it was pretty cool. You’re able to save someone sooner than searching blindly,” Durr said.

Durr, who attends MCCTC, was initially interested in criminal justice, but now enjoys the firefighting side “more than I thought I would. The two programs give me more perspective and some options,” he said.

Capt. Shawn Murray, a 22-year veteran of the Youngstown Fire Department and instructor at Choffin for one year said he enjoys passing along knowledge to students. He was able to be a part of instructing his son last year, which held a special meaning for him, he said. His son is now in firefighting in the Air Force.

Murray originally wanted to pursue a career as a police officer, he said. His uncle, John Walsh, was the last Youngstown firefighter killed in the line of duty. Murray’s aunt pushed him to take the firefighter exam, and once he got on the truck, he loved it, he said.

“I love coming to a job and doing something different every day. There’s something out of the ordinary and you’re constantly learning and constantly being able to do more things and learn to push yourself more than most people,” Murray said. “To me there’s nothing more rewarding.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.