Junior Firefighters Program prepares children for a fiery future

By Molly Weisner

The road into Warrenton was quiet Monday night.

State Road 1001 dallied through the hills and clusters of forest in Warren County. The sun already set behind the county line, where the impending darkness mixed with the remaining rays.

Only the occasional truck driver rode down the highway, his cockeyed baseball cap and long, white beard reflecting in the windshield. Downtown Warrenton comes into view at the end of a few more quiet miles, and Main Street cuts it clean down the middle.

The street, like the road and the county and the night, was quiet and lightless. However, at its end, right at 7:00, fluorescent lights flashed on. Light spilled from a handsome brick building onto a few pickups parked in front. A garage door cracked open. In the parking lot, heavy boots jumped down from truck beds, and voices greeted each other in the night.

“You ready to get started?” calls an older man in a navy polo to a teenage boy in a sweatshirt and khakis.

“Yes, sir,” he says, leading a group of 14 other teens inside the Warrenton Rural Volunteer Fire Department.

Warren County Junior Firefighters Program
Bradley Pritzing calls to order the monthly meeting of the Warren County Junior Firefighters Program. The 16-year-old is an aspiring firefighter and current president of the program.

The program is a popular and well-known activity for local 12- to 18-year-olds. Professional firefighters working in and around the county help juniors organize monthly meetings, training, competitions, fundraisers, and public events.

Members come from 18 municipal departments within the county’s Firemen’s Association, which includes five departments outside Warren County that provide fire protection and other first-responder services.

The youth also help install fire detectors in residents’ homes and host information sessions in public schools.

“They are visible in the community,” Warrenton Mayor Walter M. Gardner, Jr. said. In a town of fewer than 1,000 people, when there is an emergency or house fire, it is comforting to see a familiar face arrive on the scene, he said.

Sometimes, the juniors ride along to calls, running equipment between responders and trucks.

“They are what we call gophers,” John Franks said, the program’s lead adviser and a career fireman. “Go-for this, go-for that.”

Pitzing stands in the center of a conference room in the back of the station. The other teenagers — mostly boys — sit in a semi-circle of white plastic chairs, dressed in mud-stained jeans, swatches of camo, and baseball caps.

Pitzing stands, turns toward the American flag in the corner, and leads the group through the Pledge of Allegiance. Another boy then recites a group prayer.

Now, they can get to business.

The meeting

The youth-run through their agenda for the meeting: discussing a movie night at the station, preparing for the annual junior competition in April, and planning meetings around the upcoming hunting season, which members insisted not to miss. They discuss recent fires in the community and recap prior training.

“Several people learned that fire is hot,” one boy said, and the group fell into laughter.
Franks corrals the group back to budget talks and what kind of shirts would make the best competition uniforms.

Franks and another graduate of the program, D.K. Trotman, attend meetings to keep the discussion “from falling off the rails.” After they adjourn, the chatter rises again as the group heads back into the garage for an hour of training.

Skinny bodies and lanky limbs get buckled into nearly 45-pound fire suits, complete with jacket, boots, and helmet. They look comically out of proportion with the heavy gear, but they flit and jump among each other as if weighing nothing.

Most of the youth wear helmets of red, black, and green. Each color denotes rank in the simple service: black for professional, red for the captain, and white for chiefs. As a group, they are all learning, but they come from varied experience levels and backgrounds.

History and requirements  

Pitzing’s father, Mark, is the battalion chief for Vance County Fire Department. A few of the other youth also come from two, three, and even four generations of firefighters in the community.

Julian “Juice” Greene, a former junior and current firefighter, said that is common but not required.

“I think the history of volunteer fire service is just that,” said Gardner. “They follow the footsteps of family members that started out years ago.”
Bradley Pitzing then leads the group through ladder-climbing exercises. He quizzes them on terminology and accompanies new members up the ladder.

“Once I got in it, I loved it from then,” he said.

To be a certified North Carolina firefighter in North Carolina, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma. They must also complete a series of training and tests, but this program gives them a head start.
“Some of the most rewarding stuff was being able to take your classes and get your certification,” said Greg Henry, former program president, and current firefighter for Wilson Fire/Rescue Services. “Just to get that incentive from the program and know that somebody was behind you and somebody was pushing you to go that extra step, get that education, and learn more.”

Henry said mentors pushed him to pursue his degree in fire administration from Liberty University.

The mentors do not receive pay — even full-time firefighters will only make between $30,000 to $40,000 a year on average — but they understand how valuable the program is to community building.

A community rooted in service 

“When I joined this program,” Bradley Pitzing said,” I really opened up. It made me feel like I’m not alone here. I have friends.”

The youth learn how to use thermal imaging cameras and slide face-first down a ladder, but they also learn how to support each other, building critical social skills. When Bradley Pitzing’s grandfather died in June, his teammates sent him food, letters, and flowers.

“He was the biggest thing in my life. But that right there did me in,” Pizing said. “It made me love this program even more.”

The program makes the spacious, rural county feel small, bringing together participants and mentors from small towns in every corner. Each firefighter said they leave the house in the mornings and work with their second family at the Warrenton Rural Volunteer Fire Department.

“We want these kids to understand there’s more to the fire service than just driving our big, shiny red truck, grabbing a firehouse and spraying water,” Mark Pitzing said.

When Trotman’s home caught fire on Sept. 15, the department pulled together to raise money for Trotman and his family. Calls poured in from his “public safety” family.

“In the fire service, it’s always been about brotherhood,” Mark Pitzing said. “These are not only people you’re working with, they’re your friends. This is your family.”

Not every youth who goes through the program will become a firefighter, Franks said, but everyone leaves with the necessary skills and support to be a successful young professional.

Gardner said some youth would never see outside their town or county if not for the program’s travel opportunities through its competitions.

“We want these kids to understand there’s more to the fire service than just driving our big, shiny red truck, grabbing a firehouse and spraying water,” Mark Pitzing said.

The junior firefighters also meet and network with other junior programs in Florida, Texas, and West Virginia.

“When we come in, we come in not knowing a whole lot of people,” Bradley Pitzing said. “But we don’t build friendships; we build our own little family.”

Alongside Greene, Trotman, and Franks, other firefighters supervise the training and chat with the youth, asking how they are doing and what is new with their families. The program is in its twelfth year and has seen many alums return to the station as mentors.

For current and returning members, that is the greatest reward.

“Learning your purpose and the reason you’re doing what you’re doing,” Henry said. “Being able to get out and see the needs in the community, and how much the community actually appreciates what you do.”

Edited by Aashna Shah