City of Pine Island, fire department, schools work to educate teens as firefighters
Teens take classes that teach firefighter skills, prepare them to qualify as firefighters when they turn 18.
PINE ISLAND — Torin Schweisberger never gave much thought to becoming a firefighter.
But when a few of his friends signed up for firefighting classes at Pine Island High School last year, he thought he'd give it a try.
"I thought it’d be interesting," Schweisberger said. "Turns out, it's been a lot of fun, and I've learned a lot."
The school began offering the classes in the 2020-2021 school year.
"The conversation probably started three or four years ago with the Pine Island Fire Department having some interest," said Pine Island High School Principal Mitch Schiltz.
Schiltz said the class is offered for credit through Riverland Community College in Austin, but the students are essentially scheduled a study period where they do the book work for the course. Then, every few weeks, they get hands-on experience learning at a fire station in Rochester.
For example, the students got to use the jaws-of-life to rip apart a car, something firefighters are occasionally called to do as part of rescue efforts at car crashes.
"We put it in their schedule as part of their day," Schiltz said. "There's a lot of online and independent work, and then they do field days on weekends."
Students take both classes, one after the other, so when the school year is done, they are ready to pass their firefighter tests — and the hazmat test — and get certified.
Schiltz said Rochester, Stewartville and Byron schools also participate in the classes.
Pine Island Mayor David Friese, who is also an assistant fire chief in Pine Island, said the city council next week will vote on whether or not to create a firefighter "explorers" group for the students, similar to those that are part of some Twin Cities fire departments.
Those students who younger than 18, Friese said, would not be able to perform any dangerous tasks such as fighting the fire, but they could help in other ways such as carrying equipment, recovery or assisting during cleanup.
The city has been working on this for about nine months, Friese said, and has been working with legal counsel, the city's insurance company and the fire department to create a policy.
The firefighter explorer program would allow young people to get involved in public service, Friese said.
"These kids took a real interest in it," the mayor said. "Our fire department realized we could capitalize on this interest. and create a conduit for them to serve the community by joining the fire department."
On a more practical level, the program along with the classes at the high school, helps recruit new firefighters for the city. While the average age of Pine Island's firefighters is 29, the state average is closer to 57 or 58, Friese said.
"Pine Island is like any department where we’re challenged to recruit and retain some firefighters," Friese said. "This would allow them to participate in training and actively be out in the community, say, during parades or when we're recruiting."
Friese added that with so many students not sure what they want to do after graduation, offering firefighter education gives them a skill they can use either in Pine Island or in any community where they may live. And the firefighter explorer program lets them get some hands-on experience.
"Torin’s a prime example of one of these young people who never would have thought about it," Friese said. "He tried it out and thought it’s something he might like to do."
While Schweisberger said he plans to join the Marine Corps after high school, having firefighting experience can only be a plus going forward.
"I fully intend to do this after I graduate," Schweisberger said. The next step, he said, is passing his state certification tests, "then once I'm 18 and and I pass, I can be a fulltime volunteer."