Playing with fire

Janie Boschma

Junior Shannon Abbott’s father, John Abbott, said there was no activity his daughter wouldn’t try. But when she decided at age 14 that she wanted to be a firefighter, he said he was surprised.

“It kind of surprised me that she chose firefighting,” he said. “I thought it was a phase, just another thing to try.”

Well, he was wrong.

Abbott, 20, has been a part of the Fire Explorers program since she was 14 years old.

She is now in college, and planning to take classes to become a certified firefighter. When she graduates, she will join a fire department.

Abbott found out about Fire Explorers through a continuing education flyer in the mail, her father said. Abbott then enrolled in The Fire Academy, a class taught by the St. Paul Fire Explorers through the St. Paul Connections program.

The class was a hands-on introduction to firefighting, Abbott said. During which, the teachers looked for students who were passionate about the job and were willing to commit to the program, she said. At the end of the class, the St. Paul Fire Explorers invited Abbott to join their post.

Once Abbott joined the post, she met three to four hours, once a week to train. The training combined classroom work and hands-on involvement Abbott said. During the hands-on portion, Abbott said she practiced emergency procedures such as search and rescue, pulling a ladder off the truck, securing, raising and climbing it.

“There are a lot of knots that need to be tied and angles to check,” she said about securing a ladder.

Abbott remained at the St. Paul post until she was 17 years old, when the Explorer post was shut down. Abbott had the choice to join a full-time fire department, leave the Explorer program or move to a different post. She chose to move to the Columbia Heights Explorer post.

Soon after moving there, she experienced her first house fire. Abbott’s first controlled fire was when she was 14 years old. She described the fire experiences as exciting and captivating, almost as if the fire had life of its own.

“We always joke there is a very fine line between pyromaniacs and firefighters, both being fascinated with fires,” she said. “But one starts them and the other puts it out.”

Columbia Heights Fire Explorers adviser Tom Flermoen said Abbott’s positive attitude helps her on the job. She gets along well with others and can motivate people, he said.

“She’s open-minded,” he said. “She’s always willing to learn new things.”

Abbott continued with the Fire Explorers program into college. She participates in the Explorers during summer and winter breaks, taking leaves of absence while school is in session.

Rather than joining a fire department right away, Abbott chose to attend UW-Eau Claire, where she is majoring in social work. College was the right decision for many reasons, she said. Abbott said many fire departments only hire college graduates. She also wanted a backup career in case she gets hurt or doesn’t want to be a firefighter for her entire life.

“I really want to have something to fall back on,” she said. “A lot of firefighters don’t have something.”

Although Abbott considered dropping out of school, she knows she is making the right decision.

“My heart is definitely in firefighting,” she said. “But I know this is the right choice to be making, even though it’s not the one I want.”

During the summer of 2007, Abbott experienced her first code blue, or person in cardiac arrest.

“That was my biggest fear,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could handle it, losing someone on the job.”

Abbott said the code blue was a lot different than she expected. She also said it would not deter her from pursuing firefighting.

John Abbott said he has no concerns about his daughter becoming a firefighter, but the danger of the job is still daunting.

“She’s going to be asked to put her life on the line,” he said. “I don’t like that idea, but I’m not going to stop her.”

Fire Explorers give kids a real-life view of firefighting, said Flermoen, also an alumnus of the program.

Every kid sees the big red fire trucks and says they want to be a firefighter when they grow up,c he said.

Abbott said the Explorers, called cadets, have different positions. The advisers are firefighters that are already on the department. Abbott is an associate adviser and involved with running the program and teaching lessons. Associate advisers have the same level of knowledge as the advisers, but are not yet part of the fire department, Abbott said.

Being part of the Explorers is helpful for joining a fire department.

“You get a lot of the training that you need,” Abbott said. “It’s kind of like a foot-in.”

The Exploring program began in 1949 and was part of the Boy Scouts of America, said John Anthony, the national director of Learning for Life, which runs the Explorer program. Today there are more than 300 Explorer offices across the country. The program encompasses 12 different career clusters – covering a range of diverse fields from firefighting to interior design – with unlimited job experiences. Career interest surveys determine the types of Explorer programs offered in an area, Anthony said.

Girls were first allowed to join in 1971. Today, more than 200,000 students are involved with the Exploring programs, Anthony said.

He said the Exploring programs often become feeder programs for jobs, especially in careers such as firefighting and law enforcement.

John Abbott said Fire Explorer is a great learning experience.

“The people she deals with are dedicated,” he said. “They don’t have to be there, they want to be there.”

Along with her course load at Eau Claire, next semester Abbott plans to take the classes FIRE 1 and FIRE 2 at Chippewa Valley Technical College, and work toward her Emergency Medical Technician certification, which is required to become a certified firefighter.

“I basically have all the knowledge I need,” she said. “I just need to take the classes in order to get the certificates.”

Flermoen said Abbott is going the right direction.

“She set herself a goal,” he said. “She’s working very hard to achieve it.”

For more information about the Exploring Program, visit the Learning for Life Web site. Click on the Exploring Link.