On one of the hottest June evenings of the year, as the weather settles into a scorching 85 degrees, four teenagers head outside Maple Valley Fire Station 81 in full firefighter bunker gear. This group of Zone 3 Explorers cheer each other on as they complete stair climbs, hose hoists, hose advances and other firefighter challenges.
These challenges are their way of preparing for the upcoming Musters, a competition held each year for Explorer units from the Puget Sound region.
Zone 3 Explorers is a program for young adults aged 14 to 21 and is designed to train them to work in the fire service.
“On the face of it, it is an introduction to the fire service for young people,” said Capt. Kyle Ohashi of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority.
Part of the Boy Scouts of America, the Explorers program allows participants to support local fire departments at emergency scenes with rehabilitation, receive hands-on fire service and emergency response training and participate in public outreach. It is ideal for kids who are interested in careers in the fire or emergency medical services careers.
“You’re trying to teach kids basic skills that are going to benefit them in the later years,” Ohashi said. “Kids, when they want to get into a program like this, are committing to learning things that will be essential to the adults who will hire them, whether it is in the fire service or anything else. They’re being taught about discipline, being able to make good choices, leadership and teamwork.”
Justin Thompson, 17, of Hazen High School can attest to this.
Thompson, who joined the Explorers four months ago, said he was trying to figure out life earlier in the year. It wasn’t until he participated in the firefighter challenge hosted by Renton Regional Fire Authority that he learned about the program.
“When I did the combat challenge, I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my future,” he said. “The firefighter challenge was sort of impressionable on me… I really liked that.”
For Diego Santiago, also a 17-year-old from Hazen High School, the program is a step closer to his dream of being a firefighter. While he gets the physical training he needs for the future, he said the program has helped him come out of his shell.
“I’ve been in the program for 10 months. It’s definitely made me more social,” he said. “I came in very quiet. I wouldn’t open up; I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t do anything. Next thing you know, I’m talking to these guys. We have such an incredible bond now. It’s opened me up to so many experiences. It’s given me the chance to serve my community.… It’s not only that we’re buddies, it’s a family connection. We feel free with each other.”
Santiago isn’t the only one who has socially blossomed after joining the Explorers.
Tyanna Cole, a 17-year-old from Enumclaw, described herself as a shy and reserved girl when she first joined.
“When I first joined I was the most quiet kid. I didn’t say a single word in the first year. Maybe a word or two in the second meeting…. A year later I was chatting with everybody, making jokes and having fun.”
The program is shaped to emulate the family-like bond between firefighters, according to Ohashi.
“That (structure) has translated down into the explorer program,” he said. “We teach them the same idea. If they decide to go into the fire service, they’re that much more better oriented to do it. If they chose to do something else, that sense of teamwork will benefit them all their lives.”
The physical training and the community-centered model helps Explorers mature, according to Battalion Chief Ken Whitmore, who is also a program adviser and parent of 15-year-old Explorer John Whitmore.
“(The program) makes them look in themselves. It’s developing who they are as a person,” Whitmore said. “It makes them think. It develops who they are going to be as a person, and an adult eventually. It lets them find out if this is something they’re interested in as community service, a career or both.”
The program is also a resumé booster, said Ohashi. It offers experience and certifications that make potential firefighters more employable, especially since the economy is doing well and many departments are hiring.
Apart from receiving fire and emergency service training, Explorers also attend various large events in Zone 3, which covers in Renton, Tukwila, Kent, SeaTac, Burien, Highline, Federal Way and Enumclaw. They attend events like Seafair, Renton River Days and Kent Cornucopia to help educate the public and volunteer their services.