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Posted: March 24, 2012 5:19 p.m.

Burgess: Social Circle's best kept secret - Fire explorers and fire volunteers

Wanting to learn about our Fire Explorers and fire volunteers in Social Circle, I met two young ladies at the fire station who made me realize that there's a lot about firefighting that most folks, especially me, don't know. Shannon Patterson and Ashley Yantis are both experienced firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians. Both are enthusiastic and totally committed to their work in insuring the safety of our citizens. Patterson is tall and pretty. Yantis is short (they call her "half-pint") and cute.

Unlike most jurisdictions, Public Safety Officers in Social Circle are cross trained as firemen and as policemen, and only a few of them are EMT's too.

Yantis works full time as an EMT for a private ambulance company and part time as a Public Safety Officer with the city. She would like to work full time as soon a position opens up. Patterson works full time as a Public Safety Officer and part time as an EMT at Walton County Station No. 6, located at the fire station in Social Circle. Patterson is also in charge of the Fire Explorer program. Both ladies had been introduced to firefighting through this program.

According to Wikipedia, "Exploring is a work-site based program of Leaning for Life, a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America. Exploring units usually focus on a single career, such as police, law, fire/rescue, health, etc." In Social Circle, our Explorer program is designed to teach fire and emergency medical skills.

The Explorers is one of very few organizations a young man or woman can join and participate in that actually launches them into a career. From our Social Circle Explorers program about a dozen have gone on to become full-time firefighters and emergency medical services personnel and many have become volunteers in both fields.

The Social Circle Fire Explorers started in October 1996, and the program is open to both boys and girls who must be at least 14 years old and in the 9th grade (or 15 years old and in the 8th grade). Members must also maintain a minimum of a "B" average in school.

Membership can continue until age 21, at which point a qualified individual may become an adviser. The Explorers meet weekly during the school year and bi-weekly in the summer. There are currently 10 young men and women involved in the program.

At the weekly Explorer meetings here in Social Circle, members learn how to be firefighters. Patterson serves as their primary teacher and they study different types of firefighting and rescue techniques.

This may include use of fire equipment, quick dress, interior search and rescue, CPR, basic first responder skills, how to tie knots, etc. Yantis described one drill called "hose evolution" where members who are blind-folded must find their way either back to the truck or to a hydrant, depending on the circumstances, by feeling along a long, jumbled up stretch of hose.

They learn to work in teams of two or more and heavy emphasis is placed on teamwork in the program. Fire Explorers are issued basic protective gear often recycled from worn-out items discarded by active personnel.

In 1997 our Explorers began competing at "Winterfest" in Gatlinburg, Tenn., (competition for Explorers) and have brought home trophies 14 of the 16 years.

Last year our Explorers brought home a second place trophy for the "quick-dress" competition. While vacationing in the area last year, City Council Member David Keener had an opportunity to attend the Winterfest Conference. He said that, "The completion was rugged and grueling," and, "I am extremely proud of our Explorers in what they have been able to achieve through the years, and I am honored to have them as part of our Social Circle Team."

Patterson expressed similar feelings. She said, "These kids work very hard and I am very proud of them. Anything to help support them I am here for, and any chance to help them out or brag about them I will do."

Volunteer firemen have a training program that parallels the Explorers' training. They meet on Monday evenings and participate in the annual core competency curriculum required by the state.

There is a lot of training required for fire volunteers - core competency training, pumper training, driver training, first aid, CRP, use of breathing apparatus and many other types of training hard to imagine. They are provided with official pagers that are activated every time a fire call comes through 911. Lead fire volunteer Leon Queen said, "Fire volunteers must not only be well trained, but they must be dedicated to the profession and love what they do."

I did not realize that fire personnel carried about 75 pounds of clothing and equipment on their person. The basic protective clothing and other gear weighs around 35 pounds and the breathing apparatus another 40 pounds.

Yearly state certification for firefighters requires them to be completely dressed out in two minutes or less. Social Circle has 15 to 18 fire volunteers, but only six to eight are active. They respond to about 50 percent of fire calls. Off-duty Public Safety officers also serve as fire volunteers and when a fire call (through 911) comes in, those within a reasonable distance will respond. (If they happen to live over 15 or 20 miles away from the scene, the fire would be suppressed before they even arrive.)

I learned a great deal from talking with Queen who, after retiring as a purchasing manager for Standridge Color Corp., began his "career" as a volunteer fireman in 1984.

He estimated that about 50 percent of 911 calls are medically related and the remainder includes fires, accidents, and all other emergencies. Because of his status, he has been provided with a two-way radio and can monitor all calls activated by our 911 center. He said that each fire department has its own code so you know the location of a call. Our fire department dispatches two trucks for every 911 call. In the case of major fire incident, another truck may be called in from a nearby district, often to provide additional pumping capacity.

I am impressed by what I learned about firefighting and emergency management in Social Circle. From a cost benefit perspective, I think about the tax savings that accrue to every resident through the use of fire volunteers rather than full-time firefighting personnel.

Our citizens are lucky to have folks like Queen, Patterson and Yantis on board to help us deal with emergencies we hope never happen to us. We are also lucky to have a program that will provide knowledge and opportunities for our young residents to acquire life-long careers in noble professions that serve us well.

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