Thursday, December 6, 2001

Students hear the call for fire and rescue work

Published in the Current

While their friends and classmates are playing sports, hanging out with friends or doing homework, some high school students in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth would rather be out fighting fires, directing traffic or administering medical care to sick and injured people in their communities.

They learn skills they will use as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel, and they begin serving their communities from a young age.

It is a crucial opportunity, according to Cape Elizabeth Fire Chief Philip McGouldrick, who got his start as a firefighter in South Portland’s student program 40 years ago.

“You get them when they’ve got some time and interest,” McGouldrick said, and before they go away to college and lose interest or no longer have the time to learn firefighting skills.

It offers another benefit to the towns, both of which are home to commuting workers. Fire and rescue volunteers are in shorter supply during the day, but the departments are bolstered by the students, who are nearly always around during school hours.

The students all must qualify for their extracurricular activities in the same way as student athletes do, by keeping grades up and by being responsible for any class work missed.

Going since the 1960s
The oldest program in the two towns is Scarborough’s student rescue squad, begun in 1968.

The program now involves seven or eight members each of the junior and senior classes at the high school.

They have weekly training sessions, in which juniors prepare for the Emergency Medical Technician training course mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. They learn basic first aid, CPR and how to splint broken bones. Seniors, who have taken the EMT course at Southern Maine Technical College in the summer after junior year, practice their skills.

The seniors also carry fire department pagers and can be paged out of classes at the high school to respond to an emergency.

They are responsible for all their class work and homework, and must keep their grades up.

While students used to respond to all fire and rescue calls during the school day, the recent growth of business in town has resulted in a change to that policy, according to program coordinator Bob Hawkes.

Because a number of daytime fire calls are from malfunctioning automatic alarm boxes at businesses, there is really no need for extra medical assistance. If the students left class for each of these calls, Hawkes said, they would never be in school at all. So the students are only paged out if the call is one that will require medical attention.

Several students plan to participate in rescue squads while in college, and some of them will be entering the medical field.

“It just opened a door for me,” said Karolina Kurka, who wants to be a doctor. Her colleagues echo her interest and dedication, even after spending a large part of the past summer in a classroom at SMTC studying to be an EMT.

“It was definitely worth it,” said Stephanie Byrne.

Scarborough Police Explorers
Scarborough students are not just working on the rescue squad.

Several are involved in law enforcement, through the 5-year-old Explorer post run by the town’s police department.

The group, while part of the Boy Scouts program, is open to both girls and boys between 15 and 21.

The program now includes about 10 people, according to community service officer Joe Giacomantonio.

The kids have a rank structure and uniforms, and get training in various aspects of law enforcement.

They do ride-alongs with town police officers, learn about dispatch and incident reporting, learn to direct traffic and perform various projects in the community, like putting up street signs required by the E-911 system.

Giacomantonio said they have no authority to make arrests, and do not carry firearms, though they do some firearms training on a shooting range.

The group is presently raising money to pay for a trip to Flagstaff, Ariz., in July 2002 for a conference of law enforcement Explorer posts. Among their activities will be a comedy night at the high school on Mar. 6, featuring local comedian Bob Marley.

The Explorer post provides a career-development opportunity for the students. “I really want to be in law enforcement,” said Explorer Lt. Ann Chaney. “My favorite part is a lot of the training.”

The group also sells Christmas trees at Bayley’s campground on Pine Point Road, and helps clean up a local YMCA campground.

Cape Elizabeth Student Firefighters
Several students at Cape Elizabeth High School also carry pagers and respond to calls during school hours. They take the Firefighter I course, a nationally required course for firefighters, one evening a week. They’re required to keep their grades up to stay in the program.

“It’s been very useful,” said Fire Chief McGouldrick. He said it’s a great way to make sure there are firefighters in the community.

The program offers the department additional personnel during the day, and though the students who haven’t completed their training can’t actually go into a burning building, they can help with opening and tending fire hydrants, getting drinks and tools for the firefighters, and doing other smaller, but no less important tasks around the fire scene, McGouldrick said.

“They’ve been real valuable to us,” he said.

Student firefighter Mike Walsh said he enjoys the work and the learning. He even comes to the Fire Department on his free periods to be available for calls or training.

Cape Elizabeth Student Rescue
The Cape firefighters have colleagues on the rescue side of things, as well. While they do not get certified as EMTs as part of the town’s Student Rescue program, they get exposed to a wide variety of emergency calls. They are not allowed to respond to calls involving suicide threats, people trapped in cars after accidents or other potentially disturbing scenarios.

The program is about 10 years old, according to the new coordinator, Mike Tranfaglia, a physician’s assistant who is also an ambulance driver for the squad.

Two students are on call each week when school is in session.

They wear radio pagers and respond to the fire station when a call comes in. They are allowed to decide whether to go.

“The ambulance is going to run whether they’re there or not,” Tranfaglia said.

When they go on a call, they don’t perform direct patient care, but instead observe what happens and help out by being go-fers for the EMTs, getting slings or other medical equipment from the ambulance.

They do learn to take vital signs and sometimes are asked to do that in the course of a call, Tranfaglia said.

At least once each month the group, which now numbers four, meets with Tranfaglia to discuss the past month’s runs. They go over general principles of medicine, and Tranfaglia uses calls about chest pain, for example, to teach about the risk factors for heart disease.

He said some of the students go on to further careers in medicine or join the squad as EMTs, but not all do.

“It’s supposed to be educational exposure. We’re not trying to get members for Cape Rescue out of this,” Tranfaglia said.

Christopher Roy is one of the students in the group, and has been a part of the program since his sophomore year. He is now a senior and said he wants to become a physician. He is not sure whether he’ll specialize in emergency medicine or not, but he’s learning.

“It seemed like a good way to try it out,” Roy said. He said there is also satisfaction in the way he’s learning. “I like helping others.”

He is considering taking an EMT course in the spring, and said he enjoys working with the other members on the rescue squad and learning from their experience, though sometimes that can be a little stressful during a call when a medic needs to do something without a lot of questions.

Roy also said he enjoys meeting members of the public and learning about general safety issues.

“You get all sorts,” he said. “Everybody you meet is an interesting person.”