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Island firefighters host high school students for 3-day firefighter camp

Program is meant to provide mentorship and hands-on experiences to 28 aspiring firefighters

In the early 2000s, Comox Fire Chief Gord Schreiner and his fellow firefighters brainstormed ways to offer mentorship and hands-on experiences to aspiring firefighters.

“We had been approached by kids asking how they could get in (and work at) the fire department,” explained Comox Fire Rescue Capt Corey Brooks. “We (were wondering about how to) get youth involved.”

Putting this idea into action, the Comox fire station joined forces with School District 71 to pioneer the first firefighter youth camp of its kind, aimed at introducing the region’s high school students to the world of emergency services.

More than two decades later, upwards of 350 male and female students have graduated from the program that takes place once every two years.

After a five-year hiatus caused by the pandemic, the fire station welcomed 28 recruits, Grades 10 to 12, for an adrenaline-filled three-day onsite experience from March 15-17.

Brooks, along with fellow organizer Tracey McKinney, the work experience co-ordinator at Highland Secondary School, shared with the Record that while the initial camp stretched across seven days, logistical challenges prompted a shift to a shorter format.

Despite this adjustment, the program remains the same, providing participants with a thorough understanding of basic firefighting and first-aid skills as well as connecting with experienced personnel currently working in the world of emergency services.

From waking up at 6:30 a.m., to engaging in strenuous paramilitary-style training multiple times a day, performing drills, extinguishing a car fire, rappelling down a five-storey structure, and being woken up in the middle of the night to respond to simulated emergency calls, Brooks and McKinney noticed that the camp had a lasting positive impact on the students.

“It was absolutely outstanding,” said James, a Grade 12 student at Highland Secondary School. “Every single day, we (had) full-time exposure to real-life heroes and got to see what they do, how they train, how they eat, and how they sleep. It’s a wonderful experience. I loved it!”

Though it was a challenge for all 28 students, they unanimously agreed that the experience left them feeling more confident in both their abilities and as a cohesive team.

“The greatest challenge was understanding each other, with our weaknesses and strengths, as well as learning to work as a team,” said Eva, a Grade 10 student at G.P. Vanier Secondary. “I think the best kind of learning happens in places like these, outside the classroom, with hands-on and real-life experience.”

After the three-day camp, following a fiery inter-squad competition, the students, their parents, and the volunteer firefighting staff were filled with emotion as they watched their pupils graduate.

“The best part of my job is watching the students realize their future dreams,” said McKinney. “We see them come alive and we watch them grow. By the end of (the camp), they’re exhausted, but they’re exhilarated and that’s what we want to see.”

Proving its success over the years, many camp alumni have pursued firefighting and emergency services careers across the province.

“We’ve had students come to us on the paid on-call side of things and we’ve had students become firefighters in the military,” said Brooks. “(Some made it into the) Vancouver and Nanaimo fire departments. We’ve had so many of our students that just (went in) different avenues in terms of emergency services.”

Brooks and McKinney expressed gratitude to local sponsors for providing meals during the camp, the Comox Firefighters Association for funding the event, and the firefighters volunteering their time to mentor the campers during their three-day stay.

For more information about the next firefighter youth camp and how to get involved, interested students can contact their school’s work experience co-ordinator.

READ ALSO: Indigenous youth participate in Esquimalt firefighting boot-camp

Olivier Laurin

About the Author: Olivier Laurin

Olivier is a bilingual multimedia journalist from Montréal, Québec. He possesses a deep curiosity and a passion for exploring the connections between people and their communities.
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