May 2—Children often dream about growing up to become firefighters. Now, the Palestine Independent School District and the city's Fire Department are working together to make those young dreams more accessible than ever.
Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, high school juniors and seniors may take college courses that will earn emergency medical technician and basic firefighter certifications.
The EMT program is sponsored by Trinity Valley Community College; the fire academy is through Kilgore College. Such training usually costs applicants on the outside roughly $3,000. PHS students will be able to complete both free, while still in high school.
Under the program, students earn nearly 60 college credits—amounting to nearly two years' worth of work—while attending high school.
"The first year, we will allow interested seniors the opportunity to take both courses," PHS counselor Sarah Johnson told the Herald-Press Wednesday. "The plan, however, is to allow our students to take the EMT course in their junior year, and the fire portion during their senior year."
Palestine Fire Dept. Capt. J.D. Manley told the Herald-Press only seniors can attend the fire academy portion; by law, only high school graduates can participate in live-burn training—actual firefighting—at the academy.
"They will take the required courses online," he said. "I will conduct field training like running hose and coupling fire hydrants. They will have to graduate high school to attend the 11 days of live burning at the Kilgore Academy."
Justin Florence, PHS science teacher, has been running the EMT program for more than three years. He told the Herald-Press he monitors the students' grades; if they can't cut it, they are let go from the program.
"It's academic, but I treat it very much like a sports team," he said. "You don't pass, you don't play."
Texas firefighters earn, on average, roughly $44,000 a year; EMTs bring in about $33,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows those qualified to do both earn nearly $50,000 a year—17 percent above the national average.
Manley said opportunities for students who complete the program go further than potential salaries.
"Once they complete the program, students have 23 credits from the fire portion alone," he said. "Plus, under Texas law, if they continue toward degrees in fire science or related fields, they are tuition exempt; they can go to school for free."
Fewer than five high schools statewide offer similar firefighting programs. Palestine, however, is the only school that extends the program from the school to the community—and beyond.
"We plan to make the program available to members of the community," she said. "Of course, they will have to pay for their tuition and books, but we will make it easier by getting them into the program locally."
Johnson said the community initiative is still in the planning stages, and seats will be limited. Those accepted, however, will be able to finish their courses within one school year.
"We'll have classes from 8 a.m. to noon each day," she said. "That way, those who are working will be able to attend classes around their work schedule."
PISD has also extended invitations to the Slocum, Grapeland, Cayuga, Elkhart, Frankston, Rusk, and Oakwood school districts to allow their students to join the firefighter certification program.
Florence, a licensed paramedic who also works at Palestine Regional Medical Center, is excited about the new firefighter program—and he's already witnessed the EMT program's success.
"I had a student graduate with her National Registry certification for EMT," he said. "Now, she's no longer a student; she's my partner on the ambulance."
For more information, call Sarah Johnson at 903-731-8045.