PALM COAST, Fla. — Things are heating up for a few recent grads of Flagler Palm Coast high school. Despite being teenagers, they are just a few months away from becoming state certified firefighters.

  • Flagler Fire Leadership Academy producing teen firefighters
  • Academy is a joint effort between Flagler Fire and Flagler Co. Schools
  • Students are taught by certified fire instructors 

On Monday, the fire cadets faced fire for the very first time, many both nervous and excited.

“What is it going to feel like? And when am I going to be up front?” said Fire Cadet Yaritza Ponce about what was going through her head as she prepared for the fire simulation.

These teens have are part of the Flagler Fire Leadership Academy, a joint effort between Flagler Fire Rescue and Flagler County schools, where students are taught in school by certified fire instructors.

By the time they turn 18 years old and graduate, they are prepared to put their skills to the test.

"I already finished EMT school in May, and I want to continue firefighting, take my state exams for both, and I want to continue being a firefighter EMT,” Ponce said.

The academy launched out of a need for more firefighters in the area.

“We wanted to recruit the homegrown kids into our organization knowing that we are going to have a bunch of retirements coming up, not only here but in other counties close by,” said Chief Don Petito of Flagler County Fire Rescue.

According to Petito, upwards of 30 jobs will be opening up around the area in the upcoming months that he hopes these grads will fill.

“We hire people from outside the area and then when they get the chance to go back home, wherever it may be, they go back home, and then we have to rehire, so it's a constant turnover, and we are trying to ebb that tide,” Petito said.

The academy also allows the department and its firefighters to have a close relationship with the cadets and a solid understanding of who they are hiring.

“Passing a background check, a drug test, we know already they will, because we’ve been teaching them since they were young,” Petito said. “Every one of my guys are saying we need to hire every one of these kids, because they are just so good.”

All that’s left for the cadets to do is to have real hands-on experience with fire, which they are getting with the Flashover simulator.

“It felt like literally you were being put in an oven, and your bunker gear got a little hot,” Ponce said.

In there they learn from the fire instructors how to read a fire and judge the safest way to extinguish it. After some more training like that, the cadets will be ready to take their state certification test in August.

“So at 18 years old, they are going to be hirable anywhere in the state of Florida as a firefighter EMT,” Petito said.

If they pass, they can launch into their careers straight away.

“I just want to grow and be a firefighter, maybe move up, and be a lieutenant one day,” Ponce said.

According to Chief Petito, depending on where they get hired, the cadets could start out making anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 a year with benefits and retirement.