04/22/13 — Creating firefighters of the future

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Creating firefighters of the future

By John Joyce
Published in News on April 22, 2013 1:46 PM

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Goldsboro Fire Explorers look on as advisers identify pieces of equipment they will have to retrieve during a relay event in an upcoming competition. From left are Explorers Devin Hatch, 16, Rakeem Skinner, 16, Travis Sauls, 17, Icshon Nwachinemere, 18, and Ryan Swisher, 14. In the foreground are engineer Gi Gi Eason and Capt. Julian Whitney.

Travis Sauls isn't one of the youths caught in the cycle of drugs, gangs and crime in his neighborhood.

The 17-year-old is learning to be a firefighter -- one of the many teens in the Goldsboro Fire Department's Goldsboro Fire Explorers program.

The program allows teens ages 14 to 20 to train alongside city firefighters, learning the skills required to fight fires professionally.

"As a kid I saw fire trucks go by and always wanted to see where they were going, to see closeup what they do," Travis said.

Now he does.

The Fire Explorers meet every Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Goldsboro Fire Department's headquarters at 204 S. Center St.

They train in their own turnout gear, running drills and studying procedures they use in competitions that pit their skills against other groups of explorers and junior firefighters from across the state.

Travis recruited Devin Hatch and Rakeem Skinner, both 16.

Both know some of the young men who have recently lost their lives to violence.

"I was going to play ball with (murder victim) Ken (McLaurin) that day after school, that Friday," Raheem said.

The boys never met up for their ball game, and Rakeem never saw Ken again.

Devin, the program's president, also said he would likely be in trouble if not for the program.

Now, it is about pride, he says.

"Out there they tell you not to care what other people think about you. But here we learn that you should care about it, and do things to make people thing positively about you."

The youngest member, Ryan Swisher, is 14. He turned age-eligible the same weekend the Explorer program kicked off one year ago in May, and was among the first to sign up.

"I was at Lowe's with my dad one day, and there was a house fire near there," Ryan said.

He was hooked.

Ryan and some of the other members of the program had already come to know the fire department through its mentor program at Goldsboro High School. When the Explorer program, run through the Boy Scouts of America, was finally up and running, it was a natural progression for the boys.

"This is a remarkable group of boys," Asst. Chief Lisa Johnson said.

She is the administrative adviser for the Fire Explorer program, and she couldn't be more proud of her young group.

The seven-member squad recently attended a competition in Wake Forest along with the Rosewood Junior Firefighters, and placed first in a relay event.

On Saturdays, the Explorers ride along with the Fire Department, going to calls and getting to see the action firsthand.

"When you get that first call, that's when you get going, your heart beats fast and you know right away if this is something you want to do or not," Ryan said.

The others agreed.

Then the boys got down to work, running drills for an upcoming competition.

Capt. Julian Whitney, along with engineers Gi Gi Eason, a 23-year veteran of GFD, and Brandon Wright, put the boys through equipment drills and a fast-walk relay that wore them all out.

18-year-old Icshon Nwachinemere's eyes were as big as his smile as he gritted it out with the rest of the guys.

The competition was physical, but friendly -- and fun.

The back slaps and high fives demonstrated the natural leadership and camaraderie that has developed.

The sacrifices they make, and those of the firefighters who volunteer their time as advisers and mentors, pay off by offering the young men a career path, Ms. Johnson said.

"I wanted to show other people I could do better," Travis said.

He has.

He once walked from his home on Devereaux Street all the way to the fire station for a Saturday ride along. It was near 30 degrees and sleeting, Ms. Johnson said.

"It just shows you the dedication and the character of these kids."

The Goldsboro Fire Explorers program is open to anyone 14 to 20. The only cost is a $15 a year fee.

Although there are none presently, girls are encouraged to become members.

The boys encourage anyone who think they might have a passion for firefighting to come and find out.

Devin's advice to young people? Stay focused and have passion.

Travis says follow your heart.

But for Rakeem, the message is more spiritual -- and heartfelt as he remembers friends who have chosen other paths.

"Always believe," he said.