Two years ago, Center Line High School student Jeff Dunne had no idea what kind of career he wanted to pursue.
“I was thinking of something in the medical field; maybe radiology,” Dunne said. “I wanted something I could do on the night shift because I’m not much of a morning person.”
When planning his senior class schedule, Dunne needed an additional elective to earn the required credits. That’s when the firefighting course in the school’s vocational and technical studies program caught his eye.
“I jotted it down because it sounded interesting,” Dunne said. “It was probably after the first week that I realized that was what I wanted to do.”
Last month, Dunne was one of nine Center Line fire academy graduates who took written and practical exams administered by the State of Michigan to become fully certified as firefighters.
“We’re really excited,” said instructor and firefighter Dave McGee, who runs the Center Line fire academy along with firefighter Dave Watts. “There are only three programs like this in the state. Students can take firefighter training one and two and EMT training and can graduate with both of these certifications at age 18. The way I did it, I had to go through the academy and pay for it.
Natalie Derra, a Center Line Academy graduate and student at St. Clair Shores Lakeview, knew from the age of 15 that she wanted to be a firefighter or paramedic. The ability to train for her chosen career while earning high school class credits was a dream come true for Derra.
“If it wasn’t for that class, I would have had to take my classes at a community college and it would have taken me a year to get it,” Derra said. “It has its challenges – we had to get up early on Saturdays to go to class – but it was very rewarding.”
Students attend classes for two hours a day on school days – usually one hour of lessons and one hour of practical training – and one Saturday a month for eight hours. Training takes place not only in high school, but at various fire stations in surrounding towns, including St. Clair Shores, Sterling Heights, Warren, and Center Line.
“Our curriculum is modeled using Michigan State requirements,” Watts said. “This is our first year of kids certification, but the class has been around for over 10 years. If you think you might be interested in firefighting, this course shows you what it’s really all about.
Derra and Dunne said that before joining the fire academy, they viewed firefighting as simply dousing a fire with water. Through their training, which encompasses such things as search and rescue, fire prevention, ladder technology and the medical treatment of fire-related injuries, they have learned that it is much more than that.
“I had no idea there were so many different types of jobs within the fire department,” Derra said.
Derra, Dunne, and most fire academy graduates actively seek employment in their chosen field. Derra will begin working as an EMT for a private company and apply for a volunteer firefighter position while she undergoes paramedic training, which upon completion will allow her to apply for a full-time firefighter position. Dunne also plans to apply for a volunteer firefighting position at Center Line and earn his paramedic certification so he can take on a full-time position in the near future.
The ability of graduates from the fire academy program to start their careers immediately after leaving high school cannot be overemphasized.
“There’s a huge shortage of firefighters across the country,” Dunne said. “A lot of people are interested in our program because they see it as a way to enter the job market directly, because we can obtain degrees with certifications.”
Watts said some of the work-ready graduates will be able to earn $50,000 almost immediately.
“We make dreams come true,” Watts said. “It’s great to see the passion growing in some of these kids. Jeff Dunne didn’t know what he wanted to do when he entered his senior year, and now he’s found his calling.