Students conquer fears at Burnaby Fire Department youth academy

Burnaby North Secondary Grade 12 student Lucas Smith stands in full firefighter gear with his uncle, local fire Captain Russ Flasch, and looks way up at a ladder angling into the blue sky from a fire truck 70 feet below.

“Have you ever been up there?” he asks.

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Flasch, a 26-year firefighter, assures him he has – many times.

Smith is about to face his fear of heights for the second time at the Burnaby Fire Department’s youth academy. 

Yesterday he was belayed from the top of Firehall No. 1’s 70-foot training tower three times.

“Once you went down, it wasn’t that bad,” he says. “You got more comfortable with it.”

Smith was among 15 local high school students from across the district who faced their fears, learned life-saving skills and earned graduation credits in the four-day program from April 23 to 26.

He says he signed up because he wants to be a firefighter one day, like his uncle.

“It’s awesome,” says Flasch. “I think it’s a great experience for them. They see the news and they hear stories at family gatherings and stuff like that, but this gives them more of a real appreciation for what it’s really like. I think a lot of people when they’re younger think, ‘Oh, I want to be a firefighter; I want to be a police officer,’ but the tangibles of what it’s really is, they don’t know for sure, and this is real exposure. This is really what our job’s like.”

While attracting future recruits is one of the objectives of the academy, it’s not the only one, according to deputy fire Chief Chris Bowcock.

“If they aren’t interested in that trade, we’re very sure they’re going to take away some positive life skills out of this,” he says

It also gives the fire service another way to connect with people in the community – both those who are already interested in the fire department and those who don’t know much about it, according to the deputy chief.

“We want to show the community what we do,” he says.

This is the second year the department has put on the academy in partnership with the school district.

Last year it was held during the summer, but organizers moved it to a school week this year because some students are away or unavailable during holidays.

This year’s group – 12 boys and three girls – were chosen from 29 applicants.

Captain Ian Heatherington and others in the fire department’s training division have put the students through their paces, teaching them how to climb up ladders, hang off buildings, cut up a car using the Jaws of Life, handle hydrants and hoses, and, of course, put out fires.

“I love it,” Heatherington says. “It’s great, just getting to see the kids. I remember being that age, and there was no programs like this.”

All the participants also left with a Level C CPR and AED certificate.

“I’m hoping they won’t have to use it, but, potentially, they’re armed with the tools to potentially save a life,” says chief training officer Bob Rossignol.

The local firefighter’s union (IAFF Local 323) pitched in by taking the students to Taylor Park Elementary to read to primary students to promote literacy.

For the second year in a row, the local also rounded up off-duty volunteers to host a graduation barbecue for participants and their families.

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