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Jose T. is playing with fire … literally. The 18-year-old Arsenal Technical High School senior is
foregoing his ceremonial walk across the stage with his 2016 graduation class to
join the North Star
Fire Crew
in Alaska.

 

His flight leaves today. He’ll receive his diploma in the mail.

 

Jose is trading in his cap and gown for full fire gear; weeks of hardcore
training, often while wearing a 45-pound pack on his back; 16-hour firefighting
shifts in the wild land’s of Alaska; sleeping in tents; and dining on Meals Ready
to Eat (MREs).

 

He’s doing all of this for the opportunity to join one of the Alaska Fire
Service’s 16-member volunteer Hotshot crews, which are responsible for fighting
wild fires from May through August.  It’s
an opportunity that puts Jose one step closer to fulfilling his dream of
becoming a full-fledged firefighter. It’s a dream he’s had since enrolling in
the two-year Fire and Rescue program at Arsenal Tech’s Career Technology Center (CTC) during his
junior year.

 

“There’s a mixture of nervousness, excitement and anticipation, but I’m more
excited than anything because I’m ready to do this,” said Jose, who’s also a
student in Tech’s Math and Science Magnet program. “I’m getting this
opportunity to go out there and do something that I really want to do with my
life. … It’s an experience that people don’t get to do very often, and it will
do me a lot of good in the future.”

 

Rena Wheeler, a captain with the Indianapolis Fire Department and one of the
instructors of the Fire and Rescue program, said the North Star Fire Crew is a
great opportunity for aspiring firefighters for many reasons, but specifically
because it fills a portion of what firefighters call the Black Hole — the time
between age 18-21.

 

“The Indianapolis Fire Department doesn’t hire firefighters until you’re 21,
so you’re going to need either college or military to even be looked at on that
list,” said Wheeler, a 14-year IFD veteran, who teaches the CTC course with
retired IFD Lieutenant William Alfke, a 35-year veteran. “We also don’t hire
very many people. We get 3,000 to 5,000 people applying for 30 jobs.”

 

Having experience with the North Star Fire Crew helps a potential recruit
like Jose stand out in a crowded field of hopefuls. Unlike most fire departments,
the volunteer North Star Fire Crew hires at age 18. The goal of the program is
to train and provide potential recruits for the Hotshot crews. 

 

“Having firefighting experience gives them an edge over someone who
doesn’t,” said Wheeler.

 

The Fire and Rescue program at CTC, which is in its fourth year, provides hands-on
activity for students interested in becoming firefighters. There’s the burn
chamber — a shipping container that’s set on fire and reaches over 1,200
degrees with gasses igniting overhead, with students in full gear fighting the
blaze. Students also climb an 85-foot tall aerial ladder and participate in various
physical training tests. The focus of the program is teaching students how to
fight structural fires.

 

In Alaska, Jose will be battling new terrain: wide open spaces, which can
ignite at any moment and change directions with the blowing wind. For two
weeks, he’ll engage in paid training to gain his certifications, followed by an
unpaid voluntary status with time spent getting equipment ready, building trails
for the community and working out until he’s called up to join a Hotshots crew.

 

“They had about 300 people apply (for the North Star Fire Crew), and they
hired 30 (including Jose),” said Wheeler. “Out of the recruit class, they take
their Top 16 on their first trip, so the other guys are still not getting paid,
they’re still on volunteer status. … They usually end up at the end of the
season with about nine people out of that 30 because it’s so hard mentally.
Physically, it’s draining in every aspect.”

 

But no matter how grim of a picture Wheeler has tried to paint for Jose —
and she has tried —he’s still ready to go. “I have painted the worst picture
that I can for this kid,” she said. “I said, ‘Your feet are going to be wet the
whole time and you’re going to be exhausted. You’re going to be sleeping on the
ground and it’s going to be awful, but it’s going to be great.’”

 

“I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like,” said Jose, who’s focused on
doing whatever it takes to become a firefighter. That includes attending
Vincennes University in the spring.

 

Becoming a firefighter is not only Jose’s dream, it’s also one that his parents
share.

 

“When I was younger, my parents always encouraged me to go into the public
service field, whether it was a police officer or firefighter, because they see
it as a respectable career,” said Jose. “The fire department is the one that
stood out to me more, and as I got into the (Fire and Rescue) class, it kind of
cultivated that.”

 

The initial appeal for Jose was seeing the older guys walking on Tech’s campus
in their fire uniforms, “carrying all these tools and doing things that normal
high-schoolers don’t get a chance to do. It seemed like it would be really fun
to do and learn about,” he said.

 

The two-year program, which is held daily in three-hour blocks and taught by
active and retired Indianapolis Fire Department crewmembers, is a gateway to
gaining some of the skills and training needed to become a firefighter.
Students — if they can pass the tests — receive state certifications, as
well as nine credit hours toward Vincennes University and six credit hours
toward Ivy Tech State College. The program has a graduation rate above 90
percent.

 

“What I like about this class is that they’re not just teaching you about
firefighting. They also understand that another aspect is being physically
capable of doing it. Physical fitness is really important when it comes to
firefighting because it affects how well you do your job,” said Jose. “You can
save somebody’s life because you’re physically capable of doing it. So they
stress a lot of physical activity in the class. We have PT (physical training) almost
every morning — whether it’s running a few laps or running the stairs, putting
on our gear and running around in that and having the weight on your back.
Weight training with the bench press, pull up bar (they stress that a lot
because there’s a lot of upper body strength needed).”

 

Jose knows the training — skill-based and physical — he has received in
the Fire and Rescue class will help in Alaska.

 

“North Star Fire Crew training is very rigorous,” he said. “You have to be
in really good shape to do wild land firefighting because it’s a more rigorous
job because you’re out in the woods and not in a small structure; you have the
whole ground to cover. It’s a lot more
physically demanding than structural
firefighting.”

 

That type of work could frighten some people. Not Jose.

 

 “I’ve seen (Jose) smile more in the
last month getting ready for this than I have the whole year,” said Wheeler.
“He’s excited and ready to go. This is something so different and he was the
one chosen.”

 

His instructors, classmates and administrators in the CTC program are
extremely happy for him.

 

“When I heard that Jose was offered the position with the North Star Fire
Crew, I was proud of what Jose accomplished and happy for our teachers and all
the work they put in,” said CTC Director Ben Carter. “Jose is going to be a
fantastic addition to the team.”

 

Wheeler agrees. “I’m so happy and excited for this guy. …He is a team
player. He’s a leader. He’s a quiet leader and he’s the first guy in line. He’s
showing by example, and that’s what I respect about him. He’s getting it done,
but he’s not making a big deal about getting it done. And people want to follow
somebody like that.”

 

Jose is ready for this next journey in his life. But more than anything,
he’s happy his parents get to see him reach one of his goals.

 

“My family and I are very close. It makes me feel good to fulfill one of the
dreams they’ve had for me, and that they’re proud of me and proud of what I’m
doing,” he said. “I went beyond their expectations to succeed. I like making
them proud; it makes me feel good.”