Students find community, purpose with Albemarle’s Firefighter Academy

Albemarle High School junior Raymond Ritter was struggling to figure out what to do with his life.

Then he took an introductory class last semester at Albemarle High School’s Firefighter Academy.

“I just needed a filler class and that was all that I had available,” Ritter said. “So I was like, you know, might as well throw my hat in the ring and see what happens.”

Not even a full week into the class, he connected with his classmates.

“One day, it was a room full of strangers and the next day it was a room full of really good friends,” Ritter said.

He is currently enrolled in the second firefighter class.

Instructor Al Beasley teaches fire suppression. Photo courtesy of Sandie Brundin.

The program, led by Albemarle firefighter and East Side Volunteer Fire Chief Al Beasley, teaches topics from operating a fire hose and climbing a ladder to the proper use of personal protective equipment. Students also rescued a baby dummy from a smoking school bus — all critical skills needed to become a firefighter.

“I took one class and I was like, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Ritter added.

Several other students provided similar accounts of how the Fire Academy, composed of Fire Technologies 1, 2 and 3, has allowed them the opportunity to cultivate lasting friendships while also forging passions for the profession, with many current students volunteering with East Side.

“One of the things I learned from this class is definitely the bonds you can make,” sophomore Jasmine Brown said, noting she met some of her closest friends, including Ritter, through the classes. She wants to go into the military, but is seriously considering becoming a firefighter.

Establishing the program

The Office of the State Fire Marshal first approached Beasley and Albemarle Assistant Fire Chief Kenny Kendall around 2017 about starting a high school firefighting program in the county.

There were few such programs in the state at the time. The first pilot program in the state started at Concord High School in 2010, Kendall said.

The then-chief of the Concord Fire Academy David Barlow met with Kendall about getting the Albemarle program off the ground.

“He was big in helping me get it started,” Kendall said.

Shawn Oke, Albemarle’s fire chief, presented plans for the firefighter program during a January 2019 city council meeting.

Former Albemarle Fire Chief Shawn Oke speaks before the city council about the fire program in January 2019.

“Once a high school student moves through the program and graduates from high school, they’ll have nearly everything they need to become a North Carolina certified firefighter,” Oke told the council, noting the program would also benefit the volunteer departments.

Albemarle began its fire program during the 2018-2019 school year, Kendall said. He served as the first instructor and head of the program for several years before he was promoted to assistant fire chief.

In a scenario reminiscent of the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kendall, Beasley and the others involved in its implementation built the program before finding students who could benefit from it.

“We physically went out and recruited the students for our first year,” Kendall said.

Eleven students took part in the initial classes, which included a public safety course. Many of them had experience serving with local volunteer departments.

The program, open to all high school students across the county, has gradually increased in popularity over the years as more people learned about it.

More than 100 students have taken at least one firefighting class since the program began, according to Stanly County Schools CTE coordinator Sandie Brundin. About one-fourth of the students in the program come from other Stanly high schools.

An additional 45 kids have already expressed an interest in the program for next school year, Beasley said.

“It’s a great recruitment tool,” Kendall said about the program.

Beasley is one of the two full-time instructors, along with Timothy Jarman, a captain within AFD. Class sizes have varied, ranging from as many as 27 to as few as five.

Students in the fire program work together during a training. Photo courtesy of Sandie Brundin.

Of the students who have graduated, approximately 18% have become firefighters, 911 dispatchers or work in EMS, Beasley said. Five students are employed with AFD while others have spent time with other departments.

“I think it’s a phenomenal success rate at 18%,” said Mandy Melton, SCS director of career and technical education. “Because, essentially, we’re asking kids to decide what they want to do with their future when they are teenagers.”

The program represents a workforce pipeline for the 14 fire departments throughout the county. Much of the donated classroom materials and equipment have come from those departments, Kendall said. South Side Volunteer Fire, for instance, donated a fire truck, while Oakboro Fire & Rescue recently donated $40,000 in equipment.

“Every one of the departments in this county is going to benefit from this,” Beasley said.

Building a family 

Much of the program’s appeal comes from its focus on teamwork and forging strong bonds with other students in the class. From day one, Beasley stresses the importance of the brotherhood among all firefighters.

“One person does not put out the fire. It’s an entire team effort, from the guy that drives the truck to the guy that’s on the end of the line,” Beasley said. “And that’s something that we’ve instilled in these students from the beginning.”

To gain trust from the students and generate relationships which can last beyond the program, Beasley, who goes by “Al B,” often assigns nicknames to his students. Ritter, for example, is known as “big ‘un.”

Al Beasley and Firefighter Tech 3 students speak with students at Albemarle Middle School. Photo courtesy of Sandie Brundin.

Another student, junior Alex Simmons, took the class to support her friend, who did not want to take it alone. The friend ended up leaving, but Simmons remained in the class. She has since completed all three courses, achieved fourth place (out of at least 60 competitors) in the regional SkillsUSA competition last month and has figured out her career path.

“There was just some connection and I just liked being around the kind of people that were in the classroom,” she said. “We built a kind of family.”

When asked what makes the classes so exciting and rewarding, each student pointed to one person: Beasley.

“The amount of respect that Beasley has gained, truly gained, from these children is evident in the school,” Melton said.

Overcoming Fears

The classes are composed of several modules or subject areas. In Fire Tech 1, students learn about PPE and how to operate a fire hose, while a portion of Fire Tech 2 involves rope and rescue training. Fire Tech 2 also involved working with the Jaws of Life rescue tool. Each module takes several weeks to complete, ending in the opportunity to pass a test to receive state certification.

Many of the exercises center on rescuing the perennially unlucky Annie, a dummy who often finds herself trapped inside of a car or a school bus engulfed with smoke.

“She’s the mascot,” of the program, Beasley said, noting she has probably been saved more than 100 times over the years.

Some students work to overcome fears through exercises such as climbing ladders. Photo courtesy of Al Beasley.

Some exercises force people out of their comfort zones, confronting long-held fears. Many students, including Ritter, are often nervous about climbing a ladder.

But, supported by their classmates and instructors, they find the courage to pull through.

“Mr. Ritter got on the ladder, Mr. Ritter got on the roof by the encouragement of each one of the students,” Beasley said.

Watching as the students grow, overcome their fears and become better, more confident versions of themselves is the best part of the job for Beasley.

‘Rewarding to me’

Sometimes, transformations come from the unlikeliest of people.

Junior Esmeralda Benitez, currently enrolled in Fire Tech 1, was placed in the class, as nothing else would easily fit in her schedule. By the second day in the class, Beasley noticed Benitez had a genuine interest in what he was teaching.

“All of a sudden, I saw a light come on, I saw her smile and she went from, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ to now she’s thinking about doing this as a career,” Beasley said.

Having considered several careers when she was younger, including going into law enforcement and emergency services, Benitez “wants to give it a shot” at becoming a firefighter. She and several other students will spend a full day job shadowing Albemarle firefighters.

He recalled another student last semester who regularly missed class and slept whenever he showed up. “I almost had to put his picture on a milk carton,” Beasley said.

But a remarkable change occurred within the student: Now in Beasley’s Fire Tech 2 class, he is the first to arrive and the last to leave. He also holds people accountable during class.

“Something clicked, and that is rewarding to me,” he said. “I’ve sparked an interest in this kid for him to want to come to class.”