PARIS — On a sunny day in October, 16-year-old Jasmine Roundeau found herself in full firefighting gear, high up on a ladder, smashing in a window with an axe as she simulated venting air during a fire on a second floor of a building.
While there wasn’t any actual smoke or fire, there were smoke grenades to mimic a real blaze. And to add to the intensity of the situation, not only was the Waterford teen getting her feet wet in the field of fire science at Region 9 School of Applied Technology, but she was overcoming her fear of heights.
“This young lady was scared to death of heights,” said Jon Longley, Region 9 fire science instructor and Paris deputy fire chief.
“It felt good to overcome it but I was terrified,” Jasmine said during Lynda Knowlton’s law enforcement and military prep class at Oxford Hills Technical School (OHTS) recently.
Jasmine was one of 27 students who traveled to the Mexico technical school to get a lesson in firefighting as SAD 17 and OHTS officials continue to explore launching their own fire science program locally.
Longley noted he was impressed with the Oxford Hills students.
“I just can’t reiterate enough they came programmed to learn with a skill set like none other,” he said, noting his alumni who helped with the visits said these students accomplished more in one day than they did during three months of the program.
When Longley and retired Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost walked into the Knowlton’s classroom at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, she handed the two men a stack of thank you letters from her students.
In her letter to Longley, Jasmine thanked him for pushing her out of her comfort level.
“I thought being a person with low strength, being shy, having major anxiety, being claustrophobic, having many health issues and being afraid of heights would stop me from doing something like firefighting, but you and my team made me realize that I was completely wrong,” she wrote.
Longley said firefighting used to be a male-dominated field.
“It’s not any more,” he said. “Clearly the young ladies were way more dominate in water polo and wood chopping.”
The students began their day by donning and doffing the heavy firefighter gear and were introduced to self-contained breathing apparatus. They were split into two companies and kicked off the activities with a wood-splitting competition. The split wood was later raffled and went to a man in Peru who needed firewood, Longley said.
Stanley Taylor, 16, of Norway said this was his favorite part of the day because with all of the physical exertion, his air began running low and his adrenaline started pumping.
In addition to the wood chopping and roof ventilation and rescue of a 220-pound dummy, students had to plug a leaking sprinkler, get themselves out of a small basement window with all of their gear on and conduct a wall breach to get into the next room to a safe haven.
Stanley broke an axe during the wall breach and now the unusable tool is proudly displayed in Knowlton’s classroom.
And don’t forget about the Mayday maze where they crawled fully equipped through 16-inch culverts with an entanglement of ropes and wires. Justin Thompson, 19, of Paris thought that experience was cool.
“I never had something to actually push my limits,” he said. “When we did the Mayday maze – I’ve never felt claustrophobic. I had to tell myself to calm down and really work through it.”
Knowlton pointed out that Stanley and Garrett White, 15, of Oxford, only have vision in one eye, so that rules them out for a military or police career, but not dispatching, firefighting or EMS.
“I learned that two blind kids can actually make a difference,” Garrett said. “I got you Stan.”
“It doesn’t matter if you have physical limitations or mental limitations. There’s a job for everybody in public service,” Longley told the class.
The water polo competition is a tug of war using two telephone poles 100 feet apart from each other, a wire suspending a red ball and fire hoses. Longley noted this requires teamwork because the person aiming the hose cannot see because of the spray and their teammates have to help guide the water to hit the ball.
“I don’t why, but for quite a long time I always thought firefighting was easy – you just slap on some gear and you in go with a hose and spray away,” said Zach Beaudet, 17, of Otisfield. “It takes a lot of physical strength. It takes a lot of mental strength [to] not freak out of when you’re stuck in the wall. It really opened my eyes.”
When Longley, Frost and other officials began trying to put together a fire science program for OHTS over the summer, their proposal was to add this as a single program. Knowlton has modified it a bit to turn it into a three-pronged program under the umbrella of public safety. The first year would be law enforcement/military prep, the second year fire science and the third EMT.
“I know our board is always open to more things the kids can walk out of high school and do. … I would love to be able to see someone to be able to walk out and take the test and become an EMT or become a firefighter and be ready to work to some place,” she said. “One of the things that is kind good about the whole public safety [program], if they went and did all three, it doesn’t matter which field they go into, the other information would help.”
Through this, students could receive college credit and get a jump start on their higher education while still in high school.
OHTS Director Shawn Lambert said he’s still having preliminary discussions about developing the program. One of the biggest issues remains transportation, though he has spoke with Western Maine Transportation. He added Superintendent Rick Colpitts has concerns about sending students out of the building.
“We have a comprehensive model right here that was always been one of the things that has been a hallmark of success,” Lambert said. “That is why it’s still early. That’s why it’s not a done deal. … It is one of those slogging through it, trying to figure out what would work for everybody.”
He noted he’s encouraged collaboration in the different schools’ classrooms, which will happen again during the school year.
Back in Knowlton’s classroom, Longley asked the students who would consider a career in fire science. All but one raised their hands.
Stephen Billings, 16, of Paris said his father was a firefighter and the experience at Region 9 has made him reconsider his career, as he originally wanted to go into the National Guard.
“I watched [my dad] be a firefighter since I was a baby, I guess I just want to take after him and take in that career,” Stephen said. “I really admire him. It made me remember how much I loved firefighting and how much I wanted to do firefighting since I was little.”
All of Lynda Knowlton’s law enforcement students at the Oxford Hills Technical School wrote thank-you letters to the Region 9 Technical School instructors and volunteers for the days they spent at the Mexico school learning about fire science. Below are excerpts of their letters.
“I truly enjoyed spending the day with you guys and breathing pressurized air.”
“I would like to specially thank Dux my company leader for doing such a good job for helping us with our gear and helping us through some of the more difficult obstacles.”
“I always wondered what firefighters did for p.t. And now I know.”
“I was the one aiming the nozzle at the red ball that had to get over to the enemy’s side and I did this twice. With the help of yours and the other firefighters encouragement including Chief’s and my team, we were able to win all three rounds of water polo.”
“One of my favorite parts of the day was when I was able to bust through the sheet rock wall. … My favorite piece of gear to use was the SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). It was cool because at first I didn’t think I would be able to lift up and fit through the small window in the top of the shipping container while wearing the SCBA.”
“If I had to choose a favorite activity that we did, that would be the scenario where we were in a basement and had to help each other out through the windows. I really felt like I was in danger during the activity, I really felt that urgency. … I did get my mask kicked off my face which almost made me lose my mind, considering it felt real.”
“The one thing I didn’t like was that when we did the high window in the burned shack I completely got stuck and I started not to be able to breathe so I started to have a panic attack and thanks to Bryor Gurney he calmed me down and help[ed] me to turn my body the correct way then he pulled me out.”
“I used to think that being a firefighter was relatively easy, however I learned Friday that it wasn’t as easy as I had originally thought. The uniforms are much heavier than I thought, staying calm, even during basic situations like chopping wood, was pretty difficult.”
“Another really cool moment was when we went through the window it was a very good test of teamwork and problem solving skills. It was a little challenging but we got it done and we were all proud when we turned around and were like yeah we just went through like a foot tall window.”
“First off, thank you for pulling me out of the ‘Mayday’ maze when I couldn’t breathe. If it wasn’t for you I don’t know what would have happened to me. I could have maybe passed out or even died.”
“Cody told me during one of the courses that I was going first and I didn’t think I could do it, but he went up the ladder with me wile I broke the glass. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have done that nor would I have the courage or confidence to do the rest of the courses and have fun while doing them.”
“On our way back to school all of us were exhausted and smelled terrible but, still had the biggest smiles on our faces. You all gave us the opportunity to feel like we can make a difference, help others, and gave up many new stories to tell others.”