That first uncertain step is often the toughest, whether stepping into an educational opportunity or rappelling down a building from seven floors up.

Eleven Killeen ISD high school juniors, nearing the end of their first year of a two-year firefighter program are growing accustomed to unorthodox high school experiences.

On Friday, the high school cadets put on their harnesses and climbed over the edge of the 75-foot-high Marriott Hotel on W.S. Young Drive across from the Killeen Mall.

Each student leaned into thin air, pushed away from the building surface and slowly made their way down the brick structure as their trainers above and peers below provided instruction and oversight.

Several of the high school firefighter cadets acknowledged the training was nerve racking at first, but also further confirmation that they chose the right path for their secondary education.

“It’s a very fun experience,” said Jonathan Gordon, a junior at Harker Heights High School. “It’s easier than it looks. Once you get over the ledge, you have the energy and it’s nothing.”

During two hours of training, cadets took turns executing three different actions, explained Killeen Fire Department Capt. Randy Pearson, an instructor for the high school academy.

First, each one conducted a “free rappel” to get used to the concept, then they performed a “lock off,” pausing upside down in mid-air to work on the rope and finally “pick-offs,” actually bringing down a peer in a simulated rescue, Pearson said.

The first-year firefighter cadets worked all week on rescue skills at the KFD’s 30-foot training tower at Conder Park before taking on the hotel at more than twice the height.

“They train on this to learn to rescue people trapped in a building,” Pearson said, “but also to be able to rescue themselves.” The training included learning to use ropes and tie a variety of knots, as well as rappelling skills and confidence building.

“I always love this class,” said Carlos Caceres, a Killeen High School junior. “It’s my childhood dream to be a firefighter since I first saw a firetruck and saw firefighters rescue people on tv.” While he said he was afraid of heights, he also said he loves a challenge.

Several students said they appreciated the chance to fulfill requirements to seek state certification as a firefighter and emergency medical technician as high school students.

The firefighter and EMT academies for KISD high school students are part of the offerings of the school district’s Career Center, which provides 33 programs of study from digital graphics to robotics, healthcare, veterinary technician, dental hygiene and much more.

“I love how we can get certified and hired right out of high school and can save lives,” said Killeen High School junior James Martin. “I love making a difference and I want to be able to come to a scene and help people in an emergency.”

Enthusiastic about making a difference, Martin said firefighting is also hard work, both in the field and in the classroom, where students learn a variety of math and science related to construction, different types of fires and details of water pressure and chemical components.

“It’s not just pouring water on a flame,” the student said.

“It’s honestly my whole life,” said Ellison High School junior Nariah Figueroa. “My future is right here. I appreciate it all, out here and even in class during the lectures.”

The only female firefighter cadet in the current junior class said she was inspired to seek a career in emergency services following a family trip to New York City where she saw a firetruck that was part of a 9-11 memorial.

“This is something different,” she said of learning firefighting in high school. “I think about everyone in class while I’m here rappelling off a hotel. It feels right. This is where I’m supposed to be.”


Larry Mitchell

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