Fire department turns to Hays County high-schoolers for recruiting pipeline

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BUDA, Texas (KXAN) — Eight Hays CISD seniors got their hands dirty on a recent Saturday, lugging fire hoses around the training center of the Buda Fire Department and taking aim at flames in a dumpster and the husk of an old car.

The students are part of the school district’s fire academy, a new section of classes in its career and technical education (CTE) curriculum.

After a year and a half of classroom instruction, the teenagers headed to the training center for their first hands-on firefighting experience.

The lessons they learn are the same as the ones any hopeful in the state of Texas needs to know in order to pass the state’s firefighter exam, said Freddy Rolon, division chief of training at the Kyle Fire Department and the district’s trainer.

“You can graduate from high school and you are certified right away,” Rolon said, both to be a firefighter and an EMT.

The program started a few years ago, when the school district reached out to the community to find out how to expand its CTE offerings. “And we said, you know what, we need firefighters,” Rolon said.

Hays CISD students practice putting out a car fire on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Job prospects

Senior James Holdridge originally joined the class his junior year to hang out with his friends, “but it’s become so much more.”

Seeing the work firefighters and EMTs do up-close gave him new perspective and turned him into a different person, he said. Before enrolling, he thought about becoming a police officer, like his dad, but now his options are the fire service or military.

“But either way, what I’m getting here, it’s applicable anywhere,” Holdridge said. “It has a lot to do with honor and discipline and just strong integrity.”

Joining a fire department right after graduating is not just something instructors talk about. The first class to go through the program graduated this spring, and one of the graduates got a job with the Kyle Fire Department over the summer.

“They’re pretty much in a two-year interview with us anyways,” said Kyle FD Lt. Mark Alcado, one of the class trainers.

Firefighting jobs pay well, starting at an average of more than $42,000 a year in the Austin area, according to job site Indeed.

Maren Howard, another senior, hopes the classes help her through the next phase of her education.

“You also get to get your EMT certification,” she said, “and my goal is to work as an EMT during college.”

Howard describes herself as a generally nervous person, making a firefighting class an unlikely fit. But like her classmates, she’s found a new skill set that’s contributed to more than just her future prospects.

“I’ve grown so much out of anxiety,” Howard said, “and I’ve gotten a lot more confident with what I’m doing here.”

Austin ISD serves as a model

When Rolon was looking for a similar program to model his after, he didn’t have to look very far.

Austin ISD started its fire academy at LBJ Early College High School in 2005. Working with trainers from the Austin Fire Department, about 200 students have gone through the program, the district said.

About 20 of them now work as professional or volunteer firefighters or EMTs.

But a spokesperson for AFD cautioned that graduating the high school program in Austin doesn’t guarantee students a leg up with the department. Even with the certification the classes promise, applicants to the cadet program still have to go through AFD’s academy.

With 3,000-5,000 applicants for each cadet class, the spokesperson said, competition is tight.

As central Texas’ population continues to grow, though, instructors say so will the need for qualified firefighters in smaller departments.

Option to volunteer

Even if students decide not to pursue a career in a fire service, volunteer fire departments are consistently looking for new additions to their forces.

“Manning for fire departments is always a challenge,” especially for volunteer departments, said Tim Rutland, executive director of the State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.

VFDs have had trouble finding volunteers for at least the last decade, he said, and it only continues to be more difficult. His association is doing what it can to help, providing free recruiting materials to departments across Texas through a $1.4 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Since FEMA started offering the Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grants in 2005, departments in Texas have gotten nearly $176 million in federal funds to recruit, hire and retain personnel.

Yet there continues to be a need, Rutland said.

That’s where a program like the Hays CISD fire academy can step in. “Everything that these kids are going through is what any firefighter in the state of Texas needs to go through to get certified,” Rolon said.

The students have two more live burns, one on Saturday, Nov. 23, and one in early December. Next semester, they start the EMT portion of their training before graduating in May.

During the first live burn of the year, a group of nine juniors watched their older counterparts putting out the fires. Next fall, they’ll step into their predecessors’ boots, and the pipeline will continue.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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