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Career and tech students ‘feel the heat’

If they didn’t realize it before, a group of career and technical students in Westmoreland County now know that entering a burning building to fight a fire isn’t for the faint of heart.

Mike Dortenzo, who teaches protective services at the Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, learned a year ago that state law now permits interior firefighter training for students under 18 if they are in a vocational setting. Only a handful of schools participate in Pennsylvania since the legal and logistical requirements are daunting.

But nearby Westmoreland County Community College has a public safety training facility, so despite those challenges, Dortenzo forged ahead with what he knew would be an invaluable hands-on experience for students in his protective services program, which teaches firefighting, emergency medical services, rescue, and law enforcement.

He was able to bring it all together, and professional volunteers conducted two “live burns’’ last spring in which students entered a burning building and “knocked down’’ fires.

“We didn’t make it easy for them. There is nothing easy about fighting a fire,’’ said Dortenzo, a former police officer who is highly certified across the board in protective services. “Everybody was happy and smiling and joyous before we started the burn. You should have seen the looks on their faces when they came out. They got their butts kicked.’’

Students had to tote firefighting equipment that weighs about 50 pounds, and run heavy hoses up steps and through hallways. They split into teams to conduct every aspect of interior firefighting – working hoses and water supply sources, setting up and traveling ladders, and coordinating radio transmissions. They also learned hydraulic vent techniques to remove smoke from the building.

“The building was hot,’’ Dortenzo said. “We let them feel some heat.  They enjoyed it, but at the end of the day they were beat.’’

Although the idea was to make it real for students, no quarter was spared on student safety. Under state law, Dortenzo needed five other people with fire suppression certifications on hand, and there were also emergency services personnel present with backup plans in case the need arose for professionals to enter the building. Paramedics checked vital signs of students before the burns began to make sure they were OK to enter a burning building, and vitals were checked again afterward.

Before this year, Dortenzo, who is president of the school’s EA, taught every aspect of firefighting, including exterior training, but stopped short of interior training. When he learned it was legally permissible, he saw it as a great path to early certification.

Students can’t legally fight interior fires in Pennsylvania until they are 18, but they can get certified before that. Dortenzo said the students will use their certifications for career aspirations and for service with volunteer fire companies at a time when the need is great for both professional and volunteer personnel.

“This was the next logical step in training,’’ Dortenzo said. “Previously, they would have had to do this training on their own time. Now, we are doing it as part of the school program.’’