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Students reach new heights through firefighter program

On Saturday, 10 of the approximately three dozen high school students in the program took part in their third hands-on exercise focusing on search and rescue, carry techniques and roof ventilation at the Regional Public Safety Training Center in Rochester.

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Kalli Sawnson, 18, of Byron, (black coat) and Will Wharton, 18, of Byron, listen to instructions before beginning a roof ventilation exercise Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at the Regional Public Safety Training Center in Rochester. (Emily Cutts/Post Bulletin)

It's not every day teenagers are encouraged to stand on a roof with an electric saw, but on Saturday, nearly a dozen did just that as part of a Rochester Fire Department program.

Now in its third year, the program serves students from Rochester, Pine Island, Dover, Eyota, Stewartville and Byron.

"We wanted to attract our youth to something new, something different, and really advertise the fire service," Capt. Caleb Feine said. "What a better way to offer them a hands-on experience and the minimum requirement to test for a full-time department while earning college credit at the same time."

ALSO READ: City of Pine Island, fire department, schools work to educate teens as firefighters

The academic yearlong program combines bookwork and hands-on training so that when students complete it, they have finished Firefighter 1, Firefighter 2, and Hazardous Materials Operations training. It is offered as an elective to high school students in Rochester, Pine Island, Dover, Eyota, Stewartville and Byron. Students receive college credit through Riverland Community College in Austin. The three certifications are often required to test for career fire departments.

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On Saturday, 10 of the approximately three dozen high school students in the program took part in their third hands-on exercise focusing on search and rescue, carry techniques, and roof ventilation.

What it takes to be a firefighter is somewhat familiar for 17-year-old Brandon Thompson of Byron. The high school junior's father, Eric, is a captain in the Rochester Fire Department. It was the captain who turned his son onto the program.

"It's very fun. All the guys are very good at their jobs, good at explaining stuff, very kind," Thompson said.

After high school, Thompson said he plans to get a four-year degree and then join the Marine Corps before returning to Southeast Minnesota and hopefully joining the Rochester Fire Department.

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From left to right: Dominic Cerri, 17, Brandon Thompson, 17, and Hunter Paulson, 17, all of Byron, listen as Rochester firefighter Spencer Klemm explains the tools the three will use as part of a roof ventilation exercise Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at the Regional Public Safety Training Center in Rochester. (Emily Cutts/Post Bulletin)

For 17-year-old Byron High School junior Nadia Beltranena, the program has helped to confirm her desire to become a firefighter.

"I love it. It's a lot of fun," she said. "Being able to see what it's like, what goes on, being able to see how heavy all this (gear) is is a big factor, because I'm not strong enough."

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"Yet," Feine interjected.

'The program is absolutely doing what we wanted it to'

For those who have already gone through the program and pursued further education in the fire service, their experiences with the Rochester Fire Department can give them a leg up. For Stewartville High School graduate Grant Lee, that meant he was nearly a year ahead of his peers when he started his fire science degree in the fall at Lake Superior College in Duluth.

"Going through this course, getting all the hands-on training and getting through that whole program before even coming up to school now for it, comparing myself with some of the other students, I feel like as a first-year student — technically, second-year student on paper — I look at what I've got completed versus what they have, (and) it feels really good to be that much further ahead than the rest of the group," he said.

Lee, 18, did the Rochester Fire Department program when he was a junior. He also volunteered with the Stewartville Fire Department. Coming from a family of public servants, Lee said he was always interested in a career with the fire service.

He said that when started college, his plan was to come back to Rochester and hopefully join the department here, but after learning more, his sights are set on the wildlands out west.

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Nadia Beltranena, 17, of Rochester, cuts into plywood as part of a roof ventilation exercise Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at the Regional Public Safety Training Center in Rochester. (Emily Cutts/Post Bulletin)

Lee isn't the only one furthering his firefighting education after going through the program. Feine said graduates have gone on to volunteer departments like Byron and Stewartville, some have gone on to fire science schools like Lee, and one student from the program's first year is currently on the fire department's hiring list.

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"The program is absolutely doing what we wanted it to," Feine said. "The kids love it. There are some kids, they do it, and they are like, 'This was really fun, but it's not for me,' and that is OK. They loved the program, they loved the things they got to do, but they found out maybe it wasn't a great fit, and we totally expect that, as well."

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