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When Vine Grove firefighter Phillip Johnston drove Truck 6050 – a ladder truck – from the firehouse, eight teens with a thirst for knowledge, dressed in firefighting gear gathered around it.
They were there as part of a junior firefighter program, through which participants can work toward certification in fire service and rescue. The experience participants receive applies to the 150 hours of training required for fire rescue certification, which can’t legally be completed until a participant is 18 years old.
As levers and gauges glowed on a pump panel of the ladder truck, Johnston explained how the pump and hose operate. Then, students engaged the pump and used the nozzle themselves.
Each took turns operating the hose’s nozzle in the fire department’s parking lot as they took target practice on tires on an instructor’s vehicle to clear the mud off.
Johnston is a graduate of the program and his brother, Kevin, 17, of Vine Grove, now is the senior leader. Kevin said he joined because of his interest in fire service – he is part of a third generation of fire and rescue service – and the willingness of firefighters to serve their community excites him.
“Not many people drop all their plans to help someone in need,” he said. “I have a passion for fire service and giving back to the community.”
Program instructor Frank Donehoo said participants take to heart the community service component of the program and the teens have a genuine compassion for others. They volunteer their time to work at community festivals and collect money at road blocks for Crusade for Children and Vine Grove’s Christmas for the Kids program.
But what the participants gain from the program goes beyond fire and rescue knowledge, instructor Ken Lucey said. For many, the lessons enhance self-confidence, teamwork and leadership abilities.
“It’s helped boost my confidence,” said Claire Montoya, 15, of Radcliff. “It’s helped me overcome my fears. I am a lot more confident. I trust myself. I no longer think, ‘I’m just a kid, what can I do?’”
The program has helped Cheyenne Craig, 15, of Radcliff, overcome situations at school by giving her problem solving and leadership skills.
“If there’s something going on with a group project and they want you to lead, you can manage it,” said Cheyenne, an admittedly shy person. “I now know how to overcome obstacles and I’m able to adapt in certain situations.”
Nick Nickoson, 16, of Vine Grove, said the camaraderie of the program makes joining fun.
“You can do really anything,” he said about developing in the program. “It’s just a whole bunch of friends who serve their community. It’s good for anyone who wants to join.”
The program is the only one in the county and a benchmark for others in the state, Donehoo said.
The State Fire Commission adopted its own standard operating procedures partly derived from Vine Grove’s and began sanctioning programs in 2011, Lucey said.
“The state contacted (Lucey) to get ours,” Donehoo said. “Now it’s used statewide.”
Lucey and Donehoo, who are experienced firefighters, said teens in the community needed something to do other than sports and decided to establish the program, but it took two years to plan. They researched other programs throughout the nation before establishing the Vine Grove group in 2005.
“If you weren’t into softball or soccer, there wasn’t anything for these kids to do,” Donehoo said. “It was a lot of hard work, but it paid off.”
The program’s only requirements are that participants be between ages 14 and 18 and have a willingness to learn, Lucey said.
“They keep me young,” he said.
Gina Clear can be reached
at 270-505-1746 or gclear@