Monday through Friday, about a dozen Marathon High School students are at their desks at Fire Station No. 14 by 7:30 a.m. On some days, it’s classroom instruction; on others, they are out on the “drill field” with some hands-on learning tasks such as inventorying equipment on the trucks.
“We do scenarios, too,” said sophomore Denety Garcia. “We practiced what to do if someone is having an allergic reaction to a bee sting. We used that … what’s it called?
“An epi pen,” responded one of her classmates.
Garcia is the youngest in the class; all the others are juniors and seniors. By the end of the school year, the students will have completed about half the training needed to become a beginning-level firefighter/ EMT.
“They will have their EMR certification,” said Chief John Johnson. “Frankly, the class they are taking is a lot harder than the one I took.”
“I agree,” said firefighter Chris Cameron, a MHS graduate. “It’s very detailed.”
The two co-teach the class every weekday morning. Johnson has been working on a way to recruit locals since he was hired in 2012. This year is the first time the City of Marathon’s Fire Department paired with the Monroe County School Board to offer these classes. The rationale is simple — employee retention; to hire locals who want to stay local.
“About 85 percent of our full-time employees live off-island,” Johnson said. “Most we hire right out of school, train them for two or three years, before they find employment that is more convenient to where there families are. I don’t blame them; firefighters are by nature very family oriented. But we need to work on employee retention, so we can provide another vocation for our local talent.”
Johnson said the schooling is a good way for students to learn about the job, and a good way for the department to pick future employees.
In this year’s class, about four intend to pursue emergency response as a career. Some are after a particular skill set because they intend to enter the medical field — as a nurse, for example, or a physical therapist.
“I want to be study kinesiology,” said student Christian Ruiz, “to become a physical therapist.”
The program is a true public-private partnership. Monroe County School District has budgeted about $54,000 for Marathon’s program, which covers curriculum and equipment. (Key West has a similar program, with about 16 students). The City of Marathon has skin in the game, too, providing space and instructors. The Marathon chapter of the Rotary Club is also sponsoring advanced education for one student. While the fire instruction is free, the EMT course is $2,000 per student, and the paramedic course is $8,000.
Interest in the program is growing, Johnson said.
“Next year I hope to recruit mostly juniors, so these kids can stay together and get further in their training,” he said. “I would like to put together an internship, too. That way they can come work, and get paid, during the summers as they pursue their certifications.”