Fire academy sets teens on right path
Santa Clarita Valley’s prep school for firefighters is heating up.
There was a time five years ago when the William S. Hart Regional Occupational Program Fire Academy operated out of a pickup truck with no hoses, no water and just a firefighter with a vision and a couple of high school kids willing to listen.
Now that ROP academy has established itself as the go-to place for serious young firefighters.
It now has hoses — donated by fire stations, turned out after 10 years of use.
It has a mock wooden house used for training, a donated fire engine, generators and tools donated by fire departments in Verdugo and Beverly Hills.
Most importantly, says Kelly Chulick, master chief in charge of training, it has the respect of local recruiting fire departments who see academy graduates as confident, knowledgeable, hard-working and respectful young firefighting candidates.
Last year, the academy videotaped interviews with parents of academy graduates.
“Oh, my God, the statements coming back brought me to tears,” Chulick said. “They’re going ‘You don’t know what you’ve done. I think our whole family was saved by the fact that he came to this program and found himself because we were having all kinds of trouble.’
“Now, he knows what to do,” he said. “You could see from the look in their eyes.”
On Saturday morning, at the end of a cul-de-sac on Spirit Drive, outside the open doors of the warehouse used by the William S. Hart Union High School District to store textbooks, desks and now, a growing mountain of donated fire equipment, a cluster of young men are gathered around a picnic table apparently tying and untying ropes.
Dressed in blue T-shirts and baggy bright-yellow, firefighting pants, they address each of their three teachers with “sir” every time they speak.
Inside the warehouse, about 25 young men and at least one young woman with red hair, are lined up rows in front of a teacher putting on layers of protective clothing.
They’re listening to Deputy Chief Brad Brewster bark orders.
They answer in unison. They’re attentive and when they turn to do something, they run to do it.
Academy students take part in 180 hours of hands-on training for one semester. If they complete the course (and most do), they go on to the second, more advanced class.
“Hardly anyone drops out,” Chulick said.
“We tell them at the beginning, this is a trial period. This is where you learn if you really want to be a firefighter or not.”
The firefighting academy accepts students already enrolled in their junior and senior years of high school, no one over 19.
In five years, he’s watched close to 1000 teenagers grow to be well-trained, confident prospective firefighters.
The days of young people graduating from high school, reading a newspaper and responding to an ad to become a firefighter are over, he said.
The course is part of the school district’s ROP.
“This ROP class prepares them for going into the state fire academies, Explorers, fire departments,” Chulick said.
Building a reputation
Chulick, a former military man and retired firefighter from the department in Burbank, instills pride and respect in the young men and women he guides through a two-tier course.
He also works as the drill officer for the Verdugo Fire Academy, a state academy in Glendale.
His right-hand man is Deputy Chief Mark Chavez who breaks in his praise of his students to turn and yell at them as they run.
“Where are your helmets? Get your helmets! Run!”
Chulick continues to explain the bottom line.
“I know what we’re looking for,” he said, referring to state recruiters.
Last semester, he saw four of his local academy graduates accept offers to continue at the state academy.
This semester, more than three times that number are at state academies.
“The numbers jumped because they know they’ll be hired down the road,” he said.
Likewise, enrollment in his own ROP academy has tripled in the last couple of years.
“We get firefighters coming up to us and saying ‘Wow, I didn’t know about this program. It’s pretty awesome.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the academy can call the district at (661) 259-0033, ext. 231.