It takes an exceptional person to walk into a burning building. Someone who recognizes the precarious glow of danger and takes a step forward instead of a step back. Someone who is dictated not by the overwhelming tempo of their instincts but by the rare and more extraordinary desire to lend a hand. Being a first responder is not for everyone.
But for 17-year-old Jason Bialkowski, it’s a perfect fit.
“I love helping people out, I love being in a fire truck,” Jason said. “I love it here.”
Jason is president of the Getzville Explorer Post 111, a youth firefighter program that allows its participants to develop a wider understanding of first aid and fire safety.
Under the broad umbrella of the Boy Scouts of America, Explorer curriculums are nationally recognized as rudimentary programs that prepare teenagers for careers in emergency response.
Jason, a senior at Williamsville North High School, is dedicated to his position as a Getzville Explorer.
“I have to donate two hours of my time every Sunday to come here and volunteer, and once we turn 16 we’re able to go on calls, so I’m out in the community helping them out all the time,” he said.
The Getzville Explorers is made up of 17 local students from schools including Hutchinson-Central Technical, Williamsville South, Sweet Home and Williamsville North. Once they’re eligible to join the program at age 14, these Explorers work closely with the active firefighters and are able to execute essential roles at the station.
Richard Fremming, a firefighter and the main adviser to the Getzville Explorer program, values their assistance.
“Once they hit the age of 16, and if they can demonstrate the proper proficiency in the different tasks, then they can do the ride-along program,” Fremming said. “So then they get a pager, and then they go on the fire calls with us – first aid EMS (emergency medical services) calls and fire calls.”
Fremming emphasized the necessity of the Explorers in the program.
“Especially today, when you don’t have as many volunteers as you’d like, they do play a little bit more of a critical role at times,” he said.
Eighteen-year-old Demi Xenos, a freshman at Canisius College, was recently admitted as an active firefighter after being an Explorer for a year and a half.
The Explorers “make everything run smoothly for calls and getting the things done like paperwork. Important things, but little things,” she said. “They make everything run smoothly, and they’re exposed to some pretty crazy things. They’re exposed to life, and it hits you.”
Williamsville South junior Doug Scaffidi, a fellow Getzville Explorer, appreciates the unusual opportunities that the Explorer program has to offer.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Doug. “It’s like doing something that most people don’t get to see, and I get to see it, even though I’m just a kid.”
“They’re so professional,” Demi said. “They go on calls, and you wouldn’t even believe that they were kids.”
The Getzville Explorer program began in 2000, thanks to the persistence of Steve Herberger.
Herberger, a firefighter in Getzville for 32 years and formerly the main adviser for the Explorer program, was a Getzville fire chief and is now a training officer there.
“I think it’s been a great program for our fire company and for many of the companies that I know and work with that are involved in the Explorers,” Herberger said. “As time’s evolved, I’ve seen it go into a program that is now one of the most widely recognized programs in the fire department for being progressive and very well-received. Everyone counts on the Explorers; they’re part of our daily operation.”
Though a majority of their calls are EMS calls, the Explorers practice a wide range of techniques to prepare themselves for potential careers as firefighters.
In training, these teenagers must hold themselves together under pressure situations. They have to perfect their abilities in areas such as drywall breaching, going into buildings that are in flames, rescuing victims, finding their way through mazes blackened by smoke and learning precursory medical procedures for injured patients.
But that’s nothing compared with the reality of assisting on a call. The world seen through an Explorer’s eyes is much harsher than the world seen through the eyes of the average teenager.
“We’re on the front lines. So, you know, we see everything,” said Jason.
“I think the best part is going on calls because you get to see what really happens,” said Doug, whose first EMS call was for a person who had gone into cardiac arrest. “The EMTs and stuff, they have a lot of patient contact. We have a lot of bystander contact. So we talk to the people who are there. … We have to calm them down and everything and then get information out of them.”
In some cases, the Explorer program does much more than promote fire fighting and fire safety – it influences career choices.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Demi, who is now a biochemistry major. She plans on going into emergency medicine and becoming an interior firefighter, and she attributes her occupation decisions to the Getzville Explorer post.
“There’s a job for every single person,” she said. “You might not be able to lift the heaviest guy, but you can get through the tiny squeezes and cracks in the wall and do quick searches for some people. There’s a job for everyone. They’re looking out for me.”
Fremming, a former fire chief at Getzville, noted the profound impact of the program on high school students.
“It gives them a lot of confidence,” he said. “It really takes a lot of confidence now that they’re actually going out with us and going into people’s houses and helping people, learning how to handle an emergency, not to panic, learning how to talk to people, especially people that are under stress.”
“There’s no passive standing around around here,” Demi said. “You need to really jump in and get your hands dirty and learn how to do it the right way. You always need to be able to learn something and have your mind open for something. … And you’ve got to have the courage for it.”
When the smoke fades, the dust clears and the sirens are silent, these firefighters, in training or active, are always there.
“You’ve got to have strength, and being able to say you’re OK with going into a fire with somebody,” Jason said. “You’ve got to have that trust in your fellow firemen friends, your Explorer friends. You’ve got to trust them. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Getzville Fire Company will hold an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Station No. 1, 630 Dodge Road.
Rachel Whalen is a junior at Williamsville South High School.