Little is more exhilarating for a teenager than riding in a fire truck, sirens screaming and lights flashing, with an engine full of firefighters and paramedics en route to save lives or property.
And that’s just part of the appeal of Anaheim Fire & Rescue’s Explorer Post, which is open to those age 14 to 21. The program teaches firefighting basics, leadership, teamwork, and more, and has been an important stepping stone for many firefighters on the path to their chosen career.
“It was nothing but hands-on experience,” said Jamison Bennett, a firefighter/paramedic and former AF&R Explorer. “We were always out pulling tools off the rigs, just getting hands-on. It’s always been a positive experience.”
Bennett, who was recently accepted to the Urban Search and Rescue team, remembers his excitement attending the biweekly Explorer meetings.
“They give you a uniform and kind of make you feel part of a team, which is a big part of this job,” he said. “You get to jump into fires, you get to cut cars, all the jobs of a firefighter. It’s more exciting than anything. That’s what really started my drive to continue on in the career.”
Hot dogs and chips drew former Explorer Fabienne Munoz to an AF&R open house, but the enthusiasm of the instructors convinced her to join. She’s currently working in Fairbanks, Alaska, as an EMT and engineer while attending school full time with hopes of being hired in Southern California once she completes her degree.
“I did the training and it was so much fun,” Munoz said. “I loved it, and that passion has stayed with me since.”
Explorer training helped Munoz develop the techniques she’d need in the fire service, such as throwing ladders.
“That took me a while when I was 15,” Munoz said. “They really set my foundation and I was able, through Explorers, to learn what I can do now and what I can continue to build on to improve. I think that’s why I’m so successful here at the department.”
Explorers test their skills using firefighting tools and equipment – the same equipment they’d use in the fire academy and at fire stations – to extinguish fires in a safe environment.
“It’s the first real experience being in actual fire and how hot it can actually get,” Bennett said. “It’s your first dose of reality, (that) this is what we’re up against.”
Bennett remembers his first controlled fire exercise.
“Sometimes it’s tough when we get up four to five times after midnight,” he said. “You always have to reflect on that first time, that excitement.”
Though the hands-on experience is important, firefighter/paramedic and AF&R Explorer co-advisor Jason Helms says the program also teaches how to be part of a team, how to represent yourself to the public, and how to serve others. He was an Ontario Fire Explorer from age 15 to 21.
“It’s not all about throwing ladders and pulling hose and riding around in the fire truck and blaring the sirens,” Helms said. “We’re here to serve the community. We’re here to be the best of the best.”
As a teen, Helms wanted to be a racecar driver.
“Once I got into Exploring I realized that being a racecar driver would still be really cool but there’s nothing better than this job,” Helms said. “It’s so cool to be there and working around the firefighters. I also really liked listening to the full-time firefighters give advice on how to be successful and how to carry yourself.”
Munoz said the AFR Explorer program encouraged professionalism at a young age, as well as punctuality, honesty, work ethic, and more.
“All those little things I picked up over time and built as my foundation of what to expect when I’m being a firefighter,” Munoz said.
Explorers can do frequent ride-alongs with AF&R stations, giving them an intimate look at the day-to-day as a firefighter.
“I always have a smile on my face when we’re going down the street with sirens blaring,” said aspiring firefighter and current AFR Explorer Pablo Sanchez, a student at Santa Ana College. “I like helping people.”
The ride-alongs are a favorite of Post Captain David Gallegos, 19, who leads about 30 Explorers and teaches fire academy and life skills. His career goals include joining Urban Search and Rescue teams locally and at the state level.
“When you go on a medical aid or a traffic accident and you do something heroic, you just feel great afterwards and knowing you did it with your team – that’s a great feeling,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos encourages teens in Anaheim and surrounding cities to check out the Explorer program, which meets from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. every other Tuesday.
“It set me up directly,” Bennett said. “I owe this Explorer program more than most. This Explorer program takes you from just a normal citizen that knows nothing about the job to basically (practicing) doing everything that firefighters do.”
For more information on the Anaheim Fire & Rescue Explorer program, call 714-978-7304 or visit http://www.anaheim.net/822/Fire-Explorers.