Why Start a Junior Program?

By Jerry Presta

Many fire departments ask, “Why start a junior firefighter program? Is it worth the work?” The answer is a definite yes! National Fire Protection Association data show that the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has decreased by over 150,000 between 1984 and 2018. During the same time, call volume has more than tripled. Junior firefighter programs are an important source for recruiting the next generation of firefighters, and the benefits to both the department and the juniors far outweigh the effort.

When it comes down to it, a junior firefighter program takes very little to start. Most get their first recruits through relatives of department members and grow through their siblings and friends.

Let us look at the few things it takes to start and maintain a program.

Advisors: The advisors are usually made up of a minimum of two members of the company that serve as role models to the juniors. The program meets between two to four times a month. The program is typically structured like the actual fire company – officers are elected to positions, meetings are held, and there are different types of trainings and activities for the juniors.

Age: Deciding on the allowable age range is up to the individual department. State and local age requirements should be considered, such as child labor laws. The average minimum age is between 12 and 14 years old. The individual departments also write their own by-laws for the junior program, which usually mirror their own.

Trainings: One of the most important things that keeps a program going is keeping the kids engaged. While juniors should not participate in fireground response, they can still participate in training that will prepare them for a future in the fire service. Variety is key; different topics of training can include both fire and EMS skills. One of the easiest and first trainings for new members is mask confidence and search, even if there is no SCBA. It gives the kids the feeling of how to maneuver in the gear. Forcible entry is another great training. Forcing a door is an easy topic and it gives them a hands-on experience. Teach them knots and then have a competition of speed against one another to get them right. Maybe a neighboring firehouse has a hazmat team that can talk to them, or the district has an airport where they could tour the crash rescue trucks. There are so many avenues that pique the interest of youths.

Activities: Just like everyone, kids do not like the same topic or event all the time. A great way to break that up is to have outside activities. Outings are a great way to keep comradery in the group and can be used to reinforce the importance of teamwork. A trip to an adventure park, laser tag, bowling, or arcade is always a hit. There are endless activities to choose from.

Costs: Money is always a topic of concern when starting a new program, but it actually takes relatively little money to start and run a junior group. Costs to consider include providing uniforms or t-shirts that can be worn to trainings, events, and parades as well as any costs associated with training and activities. The juniors can help raise money to offset these costs through fundraising events such as carwashes and pancake breakfasts. A local business may also be interested in donating to the program or providing apparel.

Liability: This is a topic that constantly comes up when people want to end a conversation about starting a program. A junior program is designed to teach the fundamentals of firefighting, leadership, responsibility, and procedures of the fire service. It is not to have the kids work with live fire, hydraulic rescue tools, or put them in harm’s way. Programs should be run with the utmost care and safe responsibility, including making sure it is mentored by responsible advisors of the individual fire companies. Their insurance is usually covered directly under the department or company policy, or separate riders can be written like the ones for the company softball or bowling teams. Being involved over the years and speaking to many different companies that have started junior programs, insurance coverage is the easiest part to obtain. Anything can be found with a little effort and interest.

Community Service: There are many schools and outside organizations that require community service. What better way to promote the fire service than to have community service hours right at the firehouse? Check with your local schools or youth volunteer organizations to see how you can partner to make your junior firefighter program available for these requirements.

Benefits: There are many benefits to a junior program. For starters, the program teaches youth responsibility, leadership, and skills. It is also a great recruiting tool for the department. When the junior reaches the appropriate age to join their department, they will already be much further along in their training compared to someone joining off the street. A big benefit is safety – they would have already been exposed to the SOPs of the company and different training techniques, as well as being familiar with the trucks and equipment.

Various polls from junior program advisors in the state of New York show that, for the most part, junior firefighters that eventually join the fire service hold an average of 85 percent retention rate and usually go on to become officers. Grabbing their attention at a young age before other interests set in is the key to retention.

There are many resources to help a department start or maintain a junior firefighter program. The National Volunteer Fire Council’s National Junior Firefighter Program offers information and tools to help fire/EMS departments develop, grow, enhance, and promote a local junior program. This includes a starter kit, activity ideas, training exercises, sponsorship toolkit, and more. Find these resources at www.nvfc.org/juniors.

The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York has a program called Youth in the Fire Service which features youth days around the state and online training classes. Learn more at www.fasny.com/youth. The Nassau County (NY) Junior Firefighters Association is made up of over 40 different junior firefighter organizations. They host classes and trainings several times a year that draw hundreds of junior firefighters from across the county. Learn more at www.ncjfa.org.

The North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal has a voluntary Junior Member Standard established by the NC Fire and Rescue Commission to offer guidance to fire and rescue departments in developing and administering programs. Access it at www.ncosfm.gov/fire-rescue/training-certification/junior-fire-fighter-program.

Junior firefighter programs are one of the most underutilized parts of the fire service. There are many questions to ask ourselves – Do you have second alarms? Have your department’s new applications decreased over the last 10 years? Do you have two and three person crews respond to emergencies? Do you struggle with retention? If you have answered yes to one or more of these, a junior firefighter program might be worth looking into.

The question I will leave you with is, does your department/company have a junior program? If no, why not?

Jerry Presta is a 24-year member of the East Norwich (NY) Volunteer Fire Company and advisor for his department’s junior firefighters for 22 years. He has served as chair of the board for the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association for the past 14 years. His main focus is to promote junior firefighter programs and training not only in Nassau County but across NY state and the country. He is the co-chair of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s Youth in the Fire Service Committee and sits on the National Volunteer Fire Council’s National Junior Firefighter Program Advisory Board. His drive was that junior programs are the most under-marketed branch of the volunteer fire service.