TOWNSHIP OF OCEAN, NJ– As a fire began to smoke yards away from them, over 50 students sat and watched in silence. Fortunately, there was no cause for concern. Experienced Waretown firefighters set, controlled the blaze and extinguished it. The event was all part of a learning exercise for the Waretown Fire Company’s Fourth Annual Junior Fire Academy.

Later, the students would gather around Ocean County Fire Marshall Raymond Van Marter. He would teach the kids how fire investigations work, starting with determining the fire’s point of origin.

Volunteers work with students from 5-9 pm the entire week. This session includes 52 children entering seventh grade and up, who all came out to learn about the work of firefighters.

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On August 26th, another group comes in with kids entering 4th-6th grades. Over the years, the Junior Fire Academy has attracted children from as far away as Pennsylvania.  The cost of the program covers their helmets, safety glasses, gloves and uniforms.

Waretown Fire Chief Brent Cunningham heads up the Junior Fire Academy. “The Deputy Chief and I also teach here at the Ocean County Fire Academy,” shared Cunningham. “The children receive the same instructions we teach the adults.”

Meanwhile, many of the participants in the Junior Fire Academy recognize the fire chief as a familiar face. He teaches sixth grade in Waretown’s Frederic A. Priff School.

“I love seeing my students here,” smiled Cunningham. 

Cunningham speaks of the program with enthusiasm. He says that the majority of the participants return year after year. Students whose shirts are marked with three Maltese cross insignias are in their fourth year of the Academy.

In a sense, the Junior Fire Academy acts as a recruitment tool. “If we ultimately get three regular firefighters to sign on, it would be huge,” said Cunningham.  The fire department’s current roster consists of 30 members.

As it now stands, students over the age of 16 can sign on as Junior Firefighters with Waretown. However, repeated participation in the Junior Fire Academy might soon lower the age to 15.

Highlights of the Junior Fire Academy

Waretown Fire Company’s Junior Fire Academy goes into full force right on the Ocean County Fire and EMS Training Center, conveniently located right in Waretown.

Students are divided into battalions, and each has their own recruit captain and recruit lieutenant, who helps orchestrate the day. The program emphasizes both leadership and team-building activities.

At one point, the children go into a smokehouse to search and find victims. “It’s actually just a dark building,” shared Cunningham. “The kids go in there with a flashlight and a thermal imaging camera.”

The weeklong activities also involve physical training activities.  While many include competitions, safety acts as a premier consideration throughout the entire week.

Angie Roche, President of Waretown First Aid, dedicates her time to the Junior Fire Academy. She has a rig ready to go and is prepared to help with minor emergency services as well.

Cunningham praised the Township’s Volunteer EMS services, “They’re here before we even start and stay until after we end,” he said.

Stephanie A. Faughnan is a local journalist and Director of Writefully Inspired, a professional writing and resume service. Feel free to contact her at sfaughnan@tapinto.net.