Fort Knox Middle High School has partnered with Fort Knox Fire Department to create a version of Kentucky's Junior Firefighter program that would allow seniors to become full-fledged firefighters on graduating in Kentucky.

The original Fort Knox program was an introductory course, but has become something more this year.

"[Our relationship began] five years ago when the high school contacted us about participating in the Career Practicum that allowed students to try different jobs for a semester before they graduated," said Jacob Geer, station caption of Fort Knox Fire Station 3. "That was a high school program where they received a grade and we signed a paper every day to say they'd attended the class. When they did away with the practicum, we asked to do something a little different."

Geer proposed to adopt Kentucky's Junior Firefighter Program in lieu of the usual high school electives, and school officials liked the idea.

"We talked with the [then] garrison commander, Col. [Pat] Kaune," said Geer. "He was totally onboard and we ran with it."

"We've tried to extend opportunities to our high school students in the past, but we had to do away with the practicum last school year because it wasn't conducive to our schedule or our manpower," said Lonnie Gilmore, Fort Knox High School principal. "We saw several students who were benefiting from volunteering at the firehouse. We talked over the summer about how we could make this a viable program for our students."

Gilmore said the program proved to be a win-win for everyone involved.

"[The fire department] designed the course and told me that it would be totally free to students," Gilmore said. "[I told them,] I've got a classroom for you and lockers to lock up the equipment. How about coming here to teach the courses?'"

The firefighter course of study meets what Gilmore said is an undervalued criteria for too many high schools.

"We talk about [getting students] college- and career-ready; but too often, the career part is left behind," Gilmore said. "Not everyone wants a four-year degree. Some want to go straight to the workforce, and this is one way that allows them to do that. This is an option to students who aren't ready for college. They can learn a skill, get a job and go to college later, after they've had some job and life experience."

Geer said that for the seniors who have chosen to attend, this year will be packed with experiences.
"Our kids are getting this five days a week where most programs are only in class one day a week at best," Geer said. "There is some [classroom] stuff at the beginning, but later on it will [mainly] be 'hands on,' so they'll be ready for their skill tests."

Extensive training is needed to qualify as a firefighter, according to Geer.

"They're training every day, and once they've gotten their 150 hours, they'll be considered a certified firefighter in the state of Kentucky," Geer said. "This certification allows them to take the Firefighter 1 and Firefighter II tests that gets them [International Fire Service Accreditation Congress]-qualified.

"If they complete IFSAC certification here, it can be used at any of the other 48 states where the [certification] is recognized."

He said the certification provides a huge help to Fort Knox students who could be career employable straight out of high school.

"Other [fire and volunteer] departments offer junior programs," Geer said. "They do the same training and requirements, but it can take them a lot longer to get certified because they aren't going every day in a high school setting during the school day."

Fort Knox students can also get training opportunities that other departments don't have access to, he said.

"We have some cutting edge training opportunities here. We have rappel towers, the confined space trainer, a [hazardous materials] trainer and a 'building maze' where we train for survivor rescue," said Geer. "While we don't do interior 'live fire' exercises, we do have three people from the Kentucky State Fire Rescue Training here, which allows our students to take some courses here that they'd otherwise have to take somewhere else."

Some seniors said they weren't sure if firefighting was for them, but have warmed up to the idea.

"At first I was iffy about it," said Travis Haley. "Now I like it. I've gotten interested after the classes and it's become more of an option for me."

For others, the program affirms what they've known all along.

"I knew that I'd pursue this even before the program, but the classes have helped out a lot," said Todd Williamson, whose father is a firefighter in Florida. "The hands-on work has been really beneficial to confirming that."