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Firefighting 101 and beyond

WILLMAR -- It is not uncommon for little kids to dream of being a firefighter, especially after having the thrill of climbing in and on one of those big, shiny trucks.

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Submitted The Willmar Fire Explorers program, run by the Willmar Fire Department, gives teenagers and young adults the chance to learn what it takes to be a firefighter. “Everything we do on a scene, they learn to do,” Willmar Firefighter Jason Scheffler said.

WILLMAR - It is not uncommon for little kids to dream of being a firefighter, especially after having the thrill of climbing in and on one of those big, shiny trucks.

The Willmar Fire Department's Fire Explorer program gives teenagers and young adults a chance to live that dream while learning worthwhile life skills and the importance of serving one's community.

"It gives them a chance to be part of the fire department," Willmar Firefighter Jason Scheffler said. "Also, it teaches kids to be productive members in the community."

The Explorer program is open to males and females between the ages of 15 and 21 (or 14-year-olds who have passed the eighth grade). On the first and third Monday of each month, the Explorers learn all about being a firefighter, from equipment and truck knowledge to search and rescue and being a first responder to an emergency.

"Everything we do on a scene, they learn to do," Scheffler said.

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The Explorers also learn about different types of fires and smoke along with how different building materials can cause different kinds of fires.

"They learn how that affects fires and how we fight fires themselves," Scheffler said.

During the program, the youth tour the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office and Willmar Police Department, the Willmar Ambulance facility and its rigs, the Rice Memorial Hospital Emergency Room, the Lifelink Willmar base and the Kandiyohi County Rescue Squad facilities.

By the time students graduate from the program, they will have gone through what amounts to Firefighter 101 along with being certified in CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators.

"It is a rare opportunity to see what it is all about," Willmar Firefighter Darwin Melin said.

Explorers also get to participate in the Minnesota State Fair Fire Explorer Challenge, in which they compete in a variety of firefighting skill competitions.

"They love it. Their families come down and watch them," Scheffler said.

There are also college scholarship opportunities for Explorers.

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There is a $24 annual fee to join the Willmar Fire Explorers and participants must own a pair of black steel-toed boots, but other than that, the Fire Department provides all the equipment, training and tours.

"They get outfitted at no cost to them," Scheffler said. This includes actual firefighting gear, as well as emergency medical technician pants, sweatshirt, stocking cap and ball cap.

While learning firefighting skills can be fun and exciting, it is the possibility of students using those skills to help people that the firefighters really hope comes from the program.

"It teaches them how important giving is. Our goal is to develop good citizens," Melin said. "Hopefully they'll go on to bigger and better things."

Those bigger and better things do not necessarily have to be firefighting either. While the Willmar program has produced a few firefighters, past participants have also become police officers, EMTs and even a social worker.

"Just an amazing commitment to service, from many angles," Melin said.

Melin enjoys the opportunity to be a mentor to the students, some who may come from challenging circumstances and could benefit from positive role models.

"We have seen some real cool things come from this small investment in their lives," Melin said.

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The Willmar program began in 2011, when one local boy wanted to know what being a firefighter was all about. Willmar is just one of many Fire Explorer programs, which are associated with the Boy Scouts.

"The program is designed to make the youth a better person," Willmar Fire Chief Frank Hanson said.

Currently, there are five students enrolled in Willmar's program, and the Fire Department hopes to bring in more.

"We are looking to promote our program," Scheffler said.

Those interested in Fire Explorers can call the Willmar Fire Department at 320-235-1354 and ask for Jason Scheffler.

"The more students we have, the more fun things we do. It is such a fun program," Scheffler said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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