HERMITAGE — As Sam Chlpka prepares to start his junior year of high school, some of his most difficult courses haven’t been in school.
Chlpka, a junior firefighter at Hermitage Volunteer Fire Department and a student at Hickory High School, has already begun training for the day when he can become a full-fledged fireman. And the knowledge he gains — such as the proper way to don his turnout gear — could literally be a matter of life and death.
“You want to make sure you’re not going into a fire with exposed skin,’’ the future firefighter said.
Chlpka represents the next generation of firefighting. If a bill in Harrisburg has the effect its sponsors — including a Mercer County-based legislator — intend, he’ll soon have plenty of company.
State Sen. Michele Brooks, R-50, Jamestown, has introduced a measure to make it easier for young people to take firefighter training courses. The bill would allow for the creation of a firefighter training pilot program for high school students. If the bill passes, community colleges and Pennsylvania state system colleges could partner with high schools and technical schools to train young people for firefighting, and ultimately introduce them to the profession.
“This legislation is designed to help our younger students who are interested in joining our local fire departments to acquire training at a much more convenient and accessible location than what is currently offered,’’ Brooks said. “By making training programs like this more accessible, it is my hope that we can take the opportunity to help our fire departments rebuild their dwindling numbers.’’
A law, introduced by Brooks and passed earlier this year, firefighters will be able to take some classroom courses online. The senator also put forth a bill to give firefighters tax credits when they pay for their own training.
The legislation is intended to attract young people to firefighting, which needs all the help it can get, said Nate Silcox, executive director of the state Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which reviews legislation dealing with firefighting.
Silcox said the state had 300,000 firefighters a few decades ago. That number has since plunged to about 38,000.
One problem is that today’s lifestyles restrict free time for people who are establishing careers and families — the very people firefighting agencies are trying to attract into volunteer fire services — he said.
“If we can get them to take these courses before they graduate high school, before they go on to college, and before they get regular jobs it makes their life a little easier,’’ Silcox said.
Butler County Community College has been offering firefighter courses for years, said Kevin Smith, BC3’s coordinator of fire and hazmat programs. Three courses give students the essential basics.
“You learn things like how to put up ladders, how to control a fire hose and how to put your gear on,’’ Smith said.
The fourth course trains would-be first responders in actually fighting a fire and requires students to be at least 18, he said.
Hermitage Volunteer Fire Department has developed its own program geared toward high school students. Hermitage’s “cadet’’ program gives high school students required entry-level courses. The department pays all costs, such as for text books.
But Hermitage fire Chief John Flynn said firefighting requires experience along with book learning. Just because novice firefighters have completed the required classes it doesn’t mean they are ready to battle a blaze.
“Just because somebody has a certificate doesn’t mean they’re fire-fighter ready,’’ Flynn said. “I’m not going to be at a house fire and tell somebody without experience, ‘Here’s a hose,’ and run in. I want to reach a comfort level with them first.’’
Chlpka said the biggest surprise he’s encountered in training is to never take any fire lightly.
“Something that’s safe can quickly become dangerous,’’ he said.
That’s just one reason why firefighters continually need to train, Smith said.
“You can’t train enough for a job that will kill you,’’ he said.