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posted: 8/2/2014 7:00 AM

Youth Firefighters Challenge in Aurora makes fire safety lessons fun

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  • Trevor Weeks, a cadet Explorer with Aurora Post 221 and Post 99, supervises as Kimberly Menchaca, 9, makes her way down the fire pole during the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

       Trevor Weeks, a cadet Explorer with Aurora Post 221 and Post 99, supervises as Kimberly Menchaca, 9, makes her way down the fire pole during the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Chris Boykin, a cadet Explorer with Aurora Post 99, gets a look at 7-year-old Santiago Hernandez as he gets suited up in firefighter's gear during the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp.

       Chris Boykin, a cadet Explorer with Aurora Post 99, gets a look at 7-year-old Santiago Hernandez as he gets suited up in firefighter's gear during the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Retired Aurora firefighter, Mike Zelensek helps Evelyn Ramirez, an Aurora University student volunteer, and Andy Calderon, 10, use a pump can during the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

       Retired Aurora firefighter, Mike Zelensek helps Evelyn Ramirez, an Aurora University student volunteer, and Andy Calderon, 10, use a pump can during the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Retired Aurora firefighter Hal Carlson has Monica Jimenez, 11, stop, drop and roll, one of the activities at the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.

       Retired Aurora firefighter Hal Carlson has Monica Jimenez, 11, stop, drop and roll, one of the activities at the Youth Firefighter Challenge summer camp at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
By Miles Dobis
mdobis@dailyherald.com

"You're on fire! You're on fire!" Hal Carlson yells.

A seasoned firefighter, who today is dressed in shorts and a bright pink T-shirt, the former Aurora fire chief has his eyes turned to a mock single-story house where children and smoke-simulating vapor are pouring out of the windows.

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Carlson is manning the stop, drop, and roll station, where gangly-limbed participants pretend to be on fire and practice the tried-and-true method on a safety mat he is supervising.

What is a semiretired firefighter doing overseeing a fake blaze?

"It's really is a lot of fun," he says. "For many of these kids, this is the first exposure to fire safety they'll get, so it's fun to watch the learning process."

Carlson is one of the dozens of volunteers assisting in the inaugural Aurora Youth Firefighter Challenge, a program designed for elementary school students in the East Aurora school district's summer school and camps program.

Spread over several acres and stories of Aurora's Regional Fire Museum, the event is geared toward teaching the District 131 campers fire safety and awareness.

The Challenge developed out of mutual interest from school and fire officials for engaging afternoon events for the campers that would also allow for the Aurora Fire Department to educate young people year-round.

"I just felt there was a need to reach out to the Aurora community and so we collaborated and brainstormed, and in two months we managed to put this together," said Mark Baum, vice president of the museum.

Spearheaded by Baum and Theresa Shoemaker, the district's director of Communities in Schools, the program expects to train up to 1,000 kindergarten through fifth-grade participants and has been qualified a rousing success.

Shoemaker, noting the extra time available for off-property field trips, jumped at the opportunity when Baum suggested the event.

"It has really blossomed," Shoemaker said "I don't think we could have imagined something like this when Mark reached out to us."

Firefighter Challenge is held inside the museum, which was built in 1894 and remained the city's operating fire station for nearly a century until being shut down in 1980.

A new fire headquarters was built next door, but grants and donations have allowed the building to remain and thrive as a museum since 1987. Many of the architectural components remain in original or replicated form: the Victorian "onion-dome" atop the roof, brass poles firefighters would slide down during emergencies, and the initials A.F.D. over the triple-arched entryways.

"If these walls could talk, they'd have plenty of stories to tell," says Jack Smith, one of the program's volunteers and a member of the board. "There's an awful lot of history with this building and this equipment."

As he speaks, roving groups of students are excitedly following kids the program calls "Explorers" -- older teens with an interest in firefighting and fire safety.

The Explorers lead the campers through a regional history of firefighting laid out in chronological order in the museum's main room. A pump from the 1850s that required up to six people to operate resembles a giant sprinkler, and a preserved, hollowed-out tree filled with water was the basis for the term "fireplug."

But this room is only one of the many stations of the program, which spreads over the entire building and property. On the second floor and in what used to be the station's loft, Explorer Chris Boykin gives a demonstration in what is now a renovated presentation space.

After showing a short film hosted by Timon and Pumbaa from "The Lion King" about the importance of smoke detectors, Boykin takes lucky volunteers and dresses them in full firefighter garb until they resemble mobile lumps of rubber.

The campers are giggling and fidgeting at the sight, but 17-year-old Boykin can tell the message is getting across.

"They're excited to learn, and they're usually a great audience," he says.

Boykin, a high school senior who plans on joining the fire department and eventually studying fire investigation in college, loves the atmosphere of the presentations.

"They're a wonderful group to teach to and seem genuinely interested for being so young."

Outside, the program has the campers participating in what seems like miniature versions of basic training. Children run relays with rolled-up fire hoses, spray water on a diorama's fake flames and slide down a shortened brass pole.

The compact house Carlson observed earlier teaches occupants to test hot surfaces with the back of their hand, and to be cautious of opening doors where smoke may be present. But the most important element to all of this, Carlson says, is a sense of fun.

"What we really want to do is make fire safety accessible and enjoyable," he says.

This includes alluding to the firefighting outfits looking like Darth Vader from "Star Wars," and keeping the campers constantly moving and gaining a sense of accomplishment.

And while safety and responsibility will always be the first concern, it's fun and adventure that will help these students learn the most.

"This summer camp is designed to be fun and to be friendly, and I want to give the kids a chance for a couple of hours to be a firefighter," Baum says. "I really think, at the end of the day, we succeeded."

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