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Vancouver teens get a snapshot of life as a firefighter

Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services’ Youth Outreach Academy students undergo five days of training

There’s a non-descript building footsteps away from Strathcona Park that has all the trappings of a 1980s horror movie set.

The total darkness that envelopes you upon entering is intentional and designed to disorient the senses.

There’s water everywhere, charred remnants of who knows what and a series of hallways leading to nowhere.

Where death is inevitable in the movie context, the exact opposite endgame is intended here.

The building in question is located within a large training facility used by the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS). On the day of the Courier’s visit, eight teenaged Vancouverites stand atop the 50-foot structure and are lowered down by members of the service’s technical rescue team via rope, harness and repelling equipment.

One young fellow gets to the lip of the building, and at the moment of truth, he’s having none of it. His body language and facial expression smack of discomfort.

“He did not want to go. He did not want to let go of my hand, and by the time he got down, he had a smile on his face,” explains Mike Heslop, a VFRS lieutenant of recruitment and outreach. “We put them in situations where they’re uncomfortable and they’re unsure — whether the situation plays out exactly like they want, or maybe it doesn’t go quite as  planned, when it’s done they can reflect on that and learn.”

Perhaps no other profession adheres to the “teamwork makes the dream work” ethos than firefighting. It’s a lesson that’s drilled home verbally and symbolically over the five-day youth outreach academy program the Courier was invited to witness.

Every day this week, 22 teenagers from across Vancouver reported for duty from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s the 10th year the VFRS has offered the academy, and about 190 grads have passed through during that time. A few have come back to become professionals, but that’s not necessarily the point.

“We want them to say, ‘I learned something, I learned life skills that I’m going to use for the rest of my life,’” Heslop said. “One of the most powerful things we can do is plant an idea in somebody’s head. As that grows through their life, maybe they want to come back to the fire department.”

The students, who are all in Grade 11 or 12, learn CPR, how to use fire extinguishers and the mechanics of navigating tight, uncomfortable spaces. They do “trust falls,” where each participant takes turns jumping off a three-foot perch and is subsequently caught by his and her teammates.

“It’s just like being on a sports team together,” said captain Carol Messenger. “If you play soccer, you’re not going to just put forwards on your team. We’re really looking for a blend of people that have a blend of experiences and skills.”

Then there’s the repelling exercise. Training officer Christopher Won cut his teeth not on the 50-foot tower, but while being lowered down 48 storeys along the side of the Wall Centre. Won’s hand will be last thing a lot of his students will touch before they go over the edge.

“When I grab a hold of my guy’s arm here and their ass is hanging over that edge, I get them to look me in the eye and I ask them, ‘You trust me, right?’ If they do, they do exactly what I say. They’re going to let go of my arm because they trust me,” Won said.

Erica Skalenda, 20, did the training in 2015 and returns occasionally on a volunteer basis to help the newest batch of recruits.

She’s still weighing her career options and may yet still become a firefighter. The lessons she learned around carrying a hose or cutting into a vehicle take a back seat to the self-belief Skalenda got from the outreach academy four years ago.

“I’m pretty small,” Skalenda. “I know I’m strong, but it’s nice to get that confidence the academy gave me.”

Jaden Rida is pretty certain his future is in fires. He’s 17 and graduates from Kitsilano secondary next year.

“I could see myself here in five, six years’ time. I’ve always wanted to be a first responder but not necessarily a firefighter per se. Now seeing how they work day in and day out, they really do save lives,” Rida said. “I’ve always wanted to serve my country and my city in the best way I know how and I feel like this is the best way to help the people of Vancouver and fellow Canadians as well.”