Cadet Program allows high school students to learn teamwork and help others

Fire Prevention Week kicks off Sunday, Oct. 6., members of the Shenandoah Fire Department give programs annually to Shenandoah elementary students. Last year Claire Adkins and Roxy Denton, helped with the program. Adkins graduated this past year from the Shenandoah Fire Department Cadet Program and Denton will graduate from the program in 2020. (Valley News photo)

Since 2008, the Shenandoah Fire Department’s cadet program and program coordinator George Shaw have made a positive impact on students.

The Shenandoah Fire Department re-instated a program in 2008 to provide basic firefighting training and volunteer involvement to eligible high school students when Ian Hilker approached them about joining the fire department.

Because Hilker was still in high school and he would be leaving for the Marines in June 2009 after graduation, it didn’t make sense for the department to put him on as a long-term member.

Hilker worked for George Shaw at Stony Point Kennels at the time and inquired how he could get involved with the fire department. Shaw talked to then-Chief Steve Hoefing, and the solution was to bring back the youth program.

“I was always drawn to emergency services like law enforcement, fire department and ambulance service,” said Hilker. “What little kid doesn’t like to see the lights and sirens go by?”

The department looked at the regulations, made some adjustments, modernized the program for the equipment, and changed the program name from explorers to cadets. The next step was recruiting.

The three original cadets were Ian Hilker, Megan (Hertensen) Gibilisco and Nikki Akers.

Hilker has been a paramedic for two years and recently obtained a full-time position as a firefighter with the Pappillion, Nebraska, fire department.

“I still use a lot of the skills I learned in cadets,” said Hilker. “I found a job I love, and I don’t think I would have found that without the cadet program. It is nice to have the opportunities to help people and their property and see how a simple act can influence others in just a few minutes.”

Hilker said the experience can’t be duplicated.

“The cadet’s is a great program that helps build real-life skills in multiple areas,” said Hilker. “It’s not just about firefighting. It’s about teamwork, trust and is a great character builder.”

Hilker is grateful for the input from Shaw.

“You have people like George that are dedicated to the program and making it successful and it shows,” said Hilker.

Gibilisco is an operating room registered nurse in Council Bluffs.

“I got involved with the cadet program because as a senior you need so many hours of community service to graduate, “ said Gibilisco. “I didn’t want to do the typical community service project and found out about the cadet program when they visited the high school recruiting.”

Like Hilker, Gibilisco learned teamwork and responsibility and still uses a lot of the skills she learned today.

“In my line of work when you go in the operating room you all go in together as a team, and it takes the whole team working together to get the job done,” said Gibilisco. “You never really forget the things you learned in the cadet program.”

Gibilisco remembers learning how to do a bailout during training. Firefighters use the bailout if they become stuck on a second floor and need to get out of the building fast.

“You go head first down the ladder and then swing your body around,” said Gibilisco. “ I’m scared of heights, so after I accomplished the bailout, it made me feel amazing, and I was pretty proud of myself.”

She also felt the teamwork aspect of the training.

“It was like a second family, and they stay your family,” said Gibilisco. “I can walk back into the fire department now and pick right back up with them.”

Since the initial group in 2008, there have been 11 graduating classes complete the cadet program.

The core components of the cadet program are:

1 )Basic firefighting responsibilities: Learn the skills required to be an asset to the fire scene.

2)Community Service: Be involved in functions to promote the department and community betterment.

3)Fitness objectives: Understand and test personal fitness levels in relationship to the fire service.

4)Discipline and Teamwork: Learning the chain of command and succeed by working together.

“The program is all based off of the fire service,” said Shaw. “We’re not really training them to be firefighters though. That’s the platform that we use to look at a bigger picture and develop a sense of it’s not just about me. We are public servants, and we’re there to help others, and so everything that we train or work on is a mindset of what are we doing that can prepare us to help somebody else.”

The cadets train using the basic skills of firefighters. They learn how to put on turnout gear, an air pack and how to safely operate different pieces of equipment.

Cadets will not actually assist in a life emergency situation while at a fire scene.

Cadets are trained to understand every detail of the equipment and what a firefighter needs so they can assist one of the regular firefighters.

“If we were on a fire grounds and we need a ladder they know where the ladders are, they know which ends up, they know which way they go,” said Shaw. “So everything about the equipment they should be able to support.”

If a firefighter is leaving a burning building and they are exhausted and their air supplies are low, cadets are trained to know how to shut off the air pack. From their training, cadets understand how heavy the air pack is to carry on their back. Cadets can assist relieving the firefighter from the intense work.

“ I think to be a very good support person you still need to know the full range of skills and stressors that a regular firefighter has,” said Shaw.

Regulations allow the department to have up to eight cadets in the program at one time. One reason for eight is so each will have a full set of fire equipment and to make skills training more efficient. More students would take more time.

“Keeping the number of cadets to eight it allows us to have a manageable training number and then they eventually have the ability or the right to show up on a fire call,” said Shaw.

Cadets are in full gear at fire calls but are not allowed to go into an uncontrolled situation or situation not deemed safe. When a fire cadet is trained they could be paired with a qualified member of the department and be taken in to help open windows, spray water on minor hot spots after the responding crew has went in and extinguished the flames and have the situation under control.

A cadet must be 16 and completed their sophomore year of school. Cadets are expected to keep at least a 2.0-grade average on a 4.0 scale. A cadet must be in good behavior while in school with no conduct problems and be in good standing with the law and not have a criminal conviction of any kind. On school nights cadets are not allowed to be at a fire past 10 p.m.

The first year in the program is learning. The second year cadets are very hands-on helping teach the next cadets coming into the program. The seniors take on a leadership role at this point.

Seniors in the cadet program are recognized with a plaque during their high school graduation. The summer after graduation, there are state-level training they can attend.

On the last night of summer before school starts in the fall, recruits will get their gear. The cadets who graduated will pass their helmets to the recruits.

“In the fire service, the helmet has always been iconic to fire departments. It is a tradition with most departments that a retiring firefighter takes his helmet with him,” said Shaw.

Cadets have their name on the back of their helmets so when the graduating cadets pass their helmet on to the recruits, the recruit will wear it that way up to six training nights before they have their name put on the helmet. Every time they look at that helmet, they see somebody else’s name.

“The theory there is your taking over where they left off, and it was something that was important to them, don’t drop the ball,” said Shaw.

Next week is fire safety week, and the Shenandoah Fire Department will be visiting the elementary school.

The Shenandoah High School has always been supportive of the cadet program and works with the department during fire safety week so that the cadets can help at the elementary school with the presentation.

“I’ve seen a huge barrier broke down because those little kids know who the high school kids are,” said Shaw.” “So when you go into the school with the cadets during fire safety week the majority of those little kids are already engaged. The cadets bridge that age barrier in a way we couldn’t.”

Shaw said this type of activity is possible because of the school and parent’s support. It is a good opportunity for them to teach or influence the younger kids.

The cadet program wasn’t something Shaw went looking for. The opportunity presented itself, and it has become a very important program to Shaw.

“Typically a fire service career is based on a 20-year time span,” said Shaw.

After 17 years on the Shenandoah department, Shaw is considering retiring soon. In the next 18 months, department officials will be addressing who will take over the cadet program for Shaw.

“Working with the cadets kept me positive about a lot of things,” said Shaw. “It’s been positive energy that’s probably helped keep me focused and upbeat. It’s been a lot of commitment through the years, but I think seeing their energy and they show up bright-eyed and ready to go every week has kept me excited and looking forward to, ok what are we doing next week,” said Shaw.

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