CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A handful of teenagers wearing white hardhats had to figure out how to move a 2,400-pound concrete block across an asphalt parking lot Thursday morning.
“This is the stuff they’re doing if a building collapses,” Cape May County Fire Marshal Connie Johnson said. “The whole time, they’re using math, physics, teamwork and they’re thinking about their safety and any victims’ safety.”
The group of students, all from Cape May County Technical High School, moved the block using a Wildwood Fire Department truck as an anchor, a cable and metal pipes with the help of instructors from the county’s Regional Urban Search Team.
The exercise was part of a new program between the school and the county Fire Academy that introduces students to careers in firefighting and other public safety fields at the Cape May County Public Safety Training Facility.
Nick Clemens, 15, of Dennis Township, isn’t totally set on a career path. He’s thinking he wants to become a police officer like his father, he said, and the extra training will help.
“I like the hands-on part,” said Clemens, a sophomore at the high school. “It’s a good class that you learn a lot that you can use later in life.”
Once the students complete the fire cadet program, they’ll be certified as a special law-enforcement officer I, in CPR and first aid, as well as in dispatching for 911 calls, said Matt Pleasants, a teacher at the high school.
“They can graduate high school with skills where they can be employed in the field,” Pleasants said. “Planting the seed right now, that’s what we’re doing.”
Inside a garage at the facility, another group of students, also equipped with white hard hats, used a high-pressure airbag to lift a trailer, adding wooden blocks underneath it for support.
Called cribbing, the blocks help keep a large object in position and support it while rescues are being made, Johnson said, adding they use the same system to lift buses, train cars and even buildings.
“I learn best hands-on, so it’s a better experience than sitting at a desk all day,” said Mattie Newby, 16, of Cape May Court House.
The program was developed from the Fire 1 curriculum and testing, a national certification program for adults, said William Cripps, Wildwood fire official and an instructor for the class.
“It’s a different dynamic because we’re used to adults coming here, but it’s been easy to adapt,” Cripps said, adding the students sit for a 90-minute lecture and then get hands-on training twice a week.
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One student, Gabe Dabow, is already a junior firefighter with the Green Creek Volunteer Fire Company in Middle Township.
Dabow, 16, said he “grew up in the fire service” because his dad is a firefighter in the same company, and he wants to be a career firefighter.
Even though it can be a dangerous career path, Dabow said he wasn’t worried, adding you just have to “look out for each other and pay attention” because serving the community has benefits that outweigh the risks.
“It may sound cheesy,” he said. “But it literally changes the community.”
And having the drive to be that change in the community is something Pleasants wants out of his students, he said.
“They’re learning firefighter skills where they can be a positive contributor to their community,” Pleasants said. “I ask the students if they have a genuine desire to help others. That’s what I look for, and this is a perfect fit.”
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