Orange County

Chapel Hill High School gets the keys to its own fire truck. Here’s why.

If you’d asked Otis Royer year ago what he planned to do after graduating high school, the 16-year-old junior wouldn’t have had an answer.

But that was before Chapel Hill High School opened its new Firefighting Academy in August.

The academy allows students from across the district to earn a firefighting certification, along with certification as an Emergency Medical Technician their senior year, to become eligible for employment as firefighters right after graduation.

“This class is really awesome,” said Royer, one of 26 cadets in the program. “To be honest, after high school, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. This is something that I’ve become really passionate about. I can really see myself doing this long into the future.”

Royer made his comments to a crowd gathered at the school on a chilly, wet afternoon to watch the Chapel Hill Fire Department hand over the keys and title to a Carolina blue fire truck students the academy will use for training.

Chief Perry Hall, who directs the program at Chapel Hill High, said the truck will give students hands-on training needed to be successful on certification tests.

“For the state curriculum, for the firefighter courses and the EMT courses, there is a set minimum standard that they have to meet. Without this equipment, it would be very difficult to meet those standards.”

Mike Clarke, 16, a junior at East Chapel Hill High School, spends mornings at Chapel Hill High to take part in the Firefighting Academy.

“I enrolled in the program because I’ve always liked helping people,” Clarke said. “I’m a Boy Scout, and it’s instilled in us to help people.”

Since classes started in August, Clarke said he has learned about basic firefighting, the different types of fires, fire behavior and how to put on Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).

He probably has learned too that the starting pay for a firefighting in Chapel Hill is $35,436, which is comparable to the base pay for first year teachers.

Fire Chief Matt Sullivan recalled walking the halls of Chapel Hill High School as a student about 35 years ago.

Sullivan said he hopes the Fire Academy at the school produces another homegrown fire chief.

“I’m hoping that someone back here becomes a fire chief,” said Sullivan, looking over his shoulder at the cadets. “I’m confident that someone back here can be a Chapel Hill fire chief someday.”

Sullivan pointed out Eleni Terzis, a master firefighter, a graduate of East Chapel Hill High School who has been on the force for 11 years, as another example of a homegrown firefighter.

In an interview, Terzis said she became interested in firefighting after talking to firefighters at a restaurant where she worked.

“I’ve loved it every since,” Terzis said. “It’s the best job in the world. I love it here, grew up here, my friends and family are here. I feel honored to work for the Chapel Hill Fire Department.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Pam Baldwin said the Firefighting Academy is an example of the impact Career Technical Education (CTE) can have on students.

“We talk about it all of the time because we know how important it is for our students to have real experiences, to find their passion,” Baldwin said. “We just hear students talking about not knowing until now what they are going to do after graduating high school. Our job as a community, in partnership, is to help them figure that out way before they start ninth-grade.”

The Fire Academy is possible because of a partnership that began with the Fire Department and the school district’s CTE department under the leadership of Kathi Breweur.

In an interview, Breweur said its is difficult to say how many of the cadets will actually go into firefighting as a career because the program is in its first year.

She said if 10 of the cadets decide to become firefighters, that would be a good number.

Breweur said the program will also prepare them to become volunteer firemen if they decide to attend college or choose another career.

The partnership has expanded to include Durham Technical Community College through which students in the program can earn credits toward an associate’s degree.

David Barbour, a trade and industrial education consultant working for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said the new Fire Academy would not be possible without the partnerships and community support.

“The key to success has been community involvement,” said Barbour, who was on hand Wednesday for the fire truck donation. “We won’t allow them [school districts] to have a program without community involvement. That makes a difference.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645