To the Rescue: Chantilly Academy Students On Track to Help with Virginia Firefighter Shortage
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A clear day at the Fairfax County Fire And Rescue Academy turns hazy as the smoke billows from a four story cinder block structure designed for drills like this. Fairfax County Firefighter recruits quickly make their way up the ladder, carefully taking one step at a time. Across the pavement, a group of Fairfax County high school students look on from a distance. But there’s no time to waste, as they must get back to their own lesson of the day: laying hose lines and pumping water.
“When the students get out there, they excel,” said retired Battalion Chief Jerome I. Williams. “Their eyes light up. They’re pulling hose lines or throwing ladders. They’re having so much fun. The enthusiasm is infectious. It’s why we bend over backwards to help them.”
It’s been a busy few months at the Fire Academy, where several Fairfax County recruit classes are being trained daily. It’s also where the FCPS high school seniors enrolled in the firefighting course receive classroom instruction and get hands-on training with state-of-the-art equipment. Williams says it’s the busiest he’s ever seen the Academy in his 37 years with the department.
“There is a shortage of firefighters and they’re trying to catch up,” said Chantilly Academy instructor John Hudak, who’s been with FCPS since the firefighting course began in 2016. “Hiring and training is ramping up because they need more staffing.”
The Virginia Fire Chiefs Association (VFCA) says this is happening for a number of reasons including retirement, a competitive workforce, and the pandemic. In Virginia, approximately 70% of all firefighters are volunteers, but fewer and fewer young people are filling that role. VFCA says the shortage of volunteer firefighters across the state has reached a critical level and it’s hindering their ability to respond to emergencies, which could jeopardize safety, especially in more rural areas.
Graduates of the FCPS firefighting course have gone on to pursue both volunteer and career firefighting. At least eight have returned to the Fairfax County Fire Academy after graduation and become Fairfax County firefighters. Ben Gaynor was a senior at Hayfield High School back in 2017 when he took the firefighting course. He’s been with the department ever since.
“The day after I got my diploma I applied here in Fairfax County,” Gaynor said. “I definitely hope to go to college at some point to study Fire Science. And the department will help pay for it, so that’s a huge plus.”
The FCPS students receive the same training as the full-time Fairfax County recruits, aside from some specialized training on high-rise buildings and metrorail. So, if students do decide to apply to the Fire Academy, they’ll know exactly what to expect. Fairfax County requires any new recruit to go through intensive training lasting several months before going out into the field. Other departments in northern Virginia have quicker training timelines and have hired several FCPS graduates based on the certifications they earned in the firefighting course.
“I definitely hope to help with the shortage and fill that void after I graduate,” shared Robinson Secondary School senior Jacob McCabe. “It makes me hopeful to see my classmates here, and to see that there is an interest in this profession. It makes me feel like we can definitely help make sure that gap is filled.”
“I plan on pursuing this,” said South Lakes senior Nehemiah Kibler. “I plan to apply here in Fairfax County. We’re family here. We all have each other’s back.”
VFCA President John Prillaman echoed that sentiment, saying whichever path or department these young people decide to pursue, they’ll find a caring community inside the fire house.
“The fire service is one of the few professions where you truly get to make a difference in someone’s life,” said Prillaman. “The fire service ‘family’ is hard to describe but when a young person joins a fire department they have a second home with people that truly care about them.”
It’s recommended students plan ahead as a freshman or sophomore if they want to take the firefighting class their senior year to ensure all required credits are completed. It’s also recommended students take the EMT course their junior year. For more information, visit the Chantilly Academy Firefighting web page.
Firefighting I and Firefighting II are Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses. Through FCPS CTE programs, students learn the technical applications of many occupations while preparing for higher education or entry-level employment. Core CTE programs include Business and Information Technology, Family and Consumer Sciences, Health and Medical Sciences, Marketing, Technology and Engineering Education, and Trade and Industrial Education. You can find more information on the CTE web page.
To address Virginia’s volunteer firefighter shortage, the VFCA recently released a recruitment-focused public service announcement (PSA) and campaign. Learn more on their website.