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Hibbing students get 'on-the-job interview' with firefighters

Amid nationwide staffing shortages in the public safety sector, local officials are offering a new deep-dive course that aims to establish a pipeline to the fire and EMS profession on the Iron Range.

Students practicing a water rescue on a fire department inflatable raft in a pool
Hibbing Fire Department member and lead Explorer adviser Derek Harren, left, paddles an inflatable rescue boat while Reuben Pankratz, center, holds Abby Taylor after pulling her onto the boat during a training exercise Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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HIBBING — Reach. Throw. Row. Go.

Those are the four options for firefighters in a lifesaving ice rescue situation, Hibbing Fire Department engineer/paramedic Derek Harren explained to a group of teens on a recent evening.

It’s ideal if crews can grab ahold of the victim or toss a flotation device to pull them in, he said. In more critical situations, it may be necessary to deploy a small boat. Only if all else fails, Harren explained, should firefighters go out directly onto thin ice or into the frigid waters.

"It's more of a high-risk, low-frequency situation," he said. "There are a lot of hazards involved, but it would be a lot more difficult if we don't train on it at least annually."

The dozen or so students listened intently as they gathered around Harren in the Hibbing High School classroom. But the real fun was about to begin down the hall, where the school's swimming pool was quickly transformed into a mock rescue scene.

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Fire chief holds up a water rescue suit and while teaching students
Hibbing Fire Department Battalion Chief Andy Anderson, second from left, holds up a water rescue suit during a Hibbing Fire Explorer Post training session Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Donning yellow Mustang survival suits, students teamed up with firefighters to test out the department's inflatable rapid deployment craft and take turns playing the role of victim and rescuer while simulating the experience of an open lake.

Firefighter teaching high school students
Derek Harren, Hibbing Fire Department member and lead Explorer adviser, explains the phrase "Reach, Throw, Row and Go" for water rescues during Explorer program training Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

It was the latest in a series of hands-on training activities for members of Hibbing Fire Explorer Post 4232. Established in March, the program gives area teens an opportunity test the waters — literally and figuratively — for potential careers in the fire and emergency medical service industry.

"My dad's a firefighter/paramedic, so I grew up going to the fire station and visiting," said Mitchell Anderson, a Hibbing senior who serves as post captain. "It caught my interest at a young age, and since then I've never really had any other thing that interests me other than fire/EMS."

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Framed by other classmates, Luke Tichy, a Hibbing sophomore, watches a video on Nov. 9 during a training session for the Hibbing Fire Explorer Post.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Anderson said his career aspirations have been solidified through eight months of up-close experience with the rigors of the job. "You just show up ready to learn," he said. "Don't make it so serious that you can't have fun. But, ultimately, you're here to learn."

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Harren, who serves as lead adviser from the fire department, sees another important component of the program: establishing a pipeline for future public safety workers in Hibbing and the Iron Range.

"As with everything right now, there's a shortage with fire and EMS throughout the country," he said. "The Exploring program is a great way for kids to get their foot in the door, especially with our department. We kind of treat it as an on-the-job interview.

High School student wearing a fire department water rescue suit
Greenly Washam, 18, of Aurora, poses while wearing a water rescue suit during a Hibbing Fire Explorer Post training session Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"Obviously, we would be thrilled if an Explorer continued on their career with Hibbing Fire. But if they decide to go cross-country and stay within the field and make that their career, we'd be super happy about that, too. The goal of Exploring is to get kids interested and then let them decide where they want to go from there."

Pushing the boundaries

In their twice-monthly sessions, students have have been introduced to the wide array of equipment used by firefighters. They have tested their skills at deploying fire hoses and throwing ladders. They've learned the basics of search and rescue, CPR and packing wounds. The students also are invited to take part in community events and ride along with fire crews on actual shifts.

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Fire chief checks an inflatable rescue boat
Hibbing Fire Department Battalion Chief Andy Anderson, third from right, checks the air after inflating a rescue boat Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

The program, open to anyone ages 14-20, has averaged about 10 participants, with more experienced members able to take on a mentoring role for newer Explorers. A recent open house event brought in another half-dozen students, and Harren noted that the goal is to cycle through each training component annually.

In the recent pool session, students gathered around fire officials to learn the ins and outs of the rescue raft, which inflates in a matter of seconds. The boat is designed with ends that flare upward, allowing rescuers to stay safely aboard while more easily harnessing and lifting the victim onto the raft.

Fire chief demonstrates a water rescue
Hibbing Fire Department Battalion Chief Andy Anderson demonstrates a water rescue reaching technique on firefighter Derek Harren on Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Battalion Chief Andy Anderson stressed the most important rule: Once you grab hold of the patient, never let go. It's also important that firefighters be mindful of the potential for breaking ice and placing the victim in even more peril.

"Think about it as a gentle approach," Anderson said. "You don’t want to be a bull in a china shop."

Once in the water, students quickly saw the benefits of their tight-fitting suits. When affixed properly, the suits will keep the wearer warm, dry and afloat in even the most treacherous of conditions.

High School student wearing a fire department water rescue suit
Luke Tichy, a Hibbing sophomore, wears a water rescue suit during a Hibbing Fire Explorer Post training session Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"It's kind of hard to describe," Hibbing sophomore Luke Tuchy said after playing the role of a patient. "It's very tight, kind of claustrophobic inside. It's just a weird feeling. You're on your back, just sitting there floating and waiting for the guys to rescue you. It's a pretty cool feeling though."

Hibbing junior Aryssa Sirjord has close family members who work as firefighters and nurses. She's still figuring out what she wants to do, but she said her interest in the fire service has grown as a result of the in-depth nature of the Explorers program.

"I like how it pushes the boundaries of a lot of different things that we've done," Sirjord said. "It really puts you in situations where you have to think instead of just react right away."

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Finding the right path

The Exploring program is a national initiative from the Boy Scouts of America, with the Hibbing fire post facilitated through the high school's Bluejacket Career Academies.

High School student smiles while putting on a fire department water rescue suit
Abby Taylor puts on a water rescue suit during a Hibbing Fire Explorer Post training session Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Jennifer Sparks, the Career Academies assistant, noted that a law and government Exploring post was offered last year, bringing judges, attorneys and other court system personnel to the classroom.

"It is a good way for the kids to get an idea of something they may be interested in doing after school without having all of the costs and time of going to college to get a degree that they, ultimately, may find out they're not as interested in as they thought," she said. "Especially with something as adrenaline-inducing as fire and EMS, I think it's really important that the kids have a good grasp of what they may be getting into."

High School student wearing a Hibbing Fire Department Explorer Post T-shirt
Aryssa Sirjord, a Hibbing junior, wears a Hibbing Fire Explorer Post T-shirt while sitting a classroom at Hibbing High School during a training session Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Career Academies allows students to select from one of five broad workforce industries and sign up for field trips, get approved to work industrial settings that normally wouldn't be open to minors and even earn school credits for time spent on the job.

The other important component, Sparks said, is filling the workplace needs of the Iron Range. While fire and EMS professionals are always needed, the region is also dealing with a shortage of plumbers, electricians and roofers, and students are taking more of an interest in the industrial arts.

"Obviously, colleges and technical schools are amazing, but the trades are really hurting," Sparks said. "It's definitely a challenge, especially when you live in an area as small as this. To get people to move here for those types of careers is difficult. So if we can get kids interested in them while they're here, and show them they can make a really good living while doing something that doesn't require all of the four-year college debt, then that might help to keep our little area of the state from dwindling."

Firefighter smiles while helping a student put on a water rescue suit
Whitney Galaski of the Hibbing Fire Department helps a student put on a water rescue suit during a Hibbing Fire Explorer Post training session Nov. 9.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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