These Are Rutherford's Junior Firefighters
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Photos by Bonnie Corcoran
On July 17th, one of the hottest days of the summer, a group of young men and women endured the heat while in full firefighter gear. As if the weather wasn’t oppressive enough, these young people worked hard fighting fires in rooms with temperatures exceeding 300 degrees. Three of the young men taking part in this five and a half week (156 hours) Junior Firefighting Course, the Fire One Program, at Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute in Mahwah, New Jersey were Rutherfordians Dennis Gentile Jr. (age 17), Robbie Ziemkiewicz (age 16) and Michael Pisciotta (age 17). These three dedicated, brave young men, took some time to speak with This is Rutherford, in between fire training sessions, about why they have chosen to become firefighters.
TIR: Choosing to become a Junior Firefighter and ultimately a Firefighter, is admirable. John Melfa, Rutherford Firefighter and former Chief, explained, "The fire service is not for everyone. It looks fun, but it's a lot of work and dedication. The JR program is a good place to get your feet wet and see if this is something you think you want to do. If it is, never stop learning, train like your life depends on it, because it does. Stay positive, ask questions and always listen to the senior members, they can teach you stuff that you can't learn in a book. Stay safe. At the end of the day, your goal is to go home in one piece." What made you decide this is something that you wanted to do?
Robbie Ziemkiewicz: Well firefighting runs in my family because both my dad and grandfather are firefighters. I grew up around it and I knew it was something I wanted to do, even when I was pretty young.
Michael Pisciotta: My Uncle Anthony inspired and encouraged me to join. I knew about firefighting, because my Uncle has been a firefighter for a long time. I decided it was something I wanted to do too.
Dennis, Gentile, Jr.: My dad is a Fire Chief and I figured I might as well join too. I also want to help others and this is a good way to do so.
TIR: So firefighting is in your blood it seems. Some of the firefighters who are training you during your course are lifelong firefighters. Paul Dansbach, Rutherford’s Fire Marshal, explained, “I think that this particular Fire One training is one of the best in the state. The instructors here are career firefighters. They are excellent, experienced trainers. In my opinion, this is the best crew in the state imparting their wisdom. They want to share what they know with these young people and they are dedicated.”
TIR: Tell us more about what Fire One Training entails.
RZ: Some of the simulations that you get to see today are just a part of our training. There are three to four hour lectures on various topics and then we put what we learn into action. We apply what they teach in the classroom to the simulations that are set up for us. There is a lot of studying involved too. We take online quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam. We take the final here and then it is sent to Kean University and it is graded by the State Marshall. Once we have passed the course, we receive our certification and we can begin to structurally firefight at age 18. If we choose to go to college, we can take an educational leave, but still go on fire calls when we are back in town, with our Fire One Certification.
MP: We are allowed to start Junior Firefighter training at age 16. Before we turn 18 and submit our certifications, we get to ride the rig and make observations from the outside when there is a fire call.
TIR: There are a number of simulations set up by the experienced instructors. The first simulation that TIR witnessed was an apartment stove fire. The instructor held onto a remote control that allowed him to control the propane fed fire and the flames coming from the stove. As the first two firefighters, Dennis and Robbie, pulled the hose into the kitchen, Michael and some of the other young men helped pull the hose from the hallway, around the corner and into the apartment. The instructor knelt on the floor very close to the Dennis and Robbie and shouted out directions. What did the three of you find most challenging during this simulation?
RZ: It is hard work pulling a charged two and a half hose line (the type used often in apartment fires) into the kitchen. It can be difficult getting the hose around corners. It is heavy when it is charged, probably over 200 pounds. It can also be a little scary at first when you see how large the fire is and you can feel the heat blowing toward you, but then once you get up close to the fire, you do what you need to do.
MP: I agree, pulling the hose is tough, but seems to get a little easier with some practice.
DG: Yes, maneuvering the hose especially throughout a hallway, into the room and then to actually put out the fire takes a lot of practice and teamwork.
TIR: Scott Russo, an instructor for the First One Training Course and Firefighter for 36 years, told TIR that one of the most important pieces of information they want to instill into their students is that “repetition makes muscle memory.” The goal is to have the junior firefighters all practice the same skills repetitively so that when they are faced with an actual fire the muscles in their body will recall exactly how to complete various tasks.
TIR: Can you provide us with some examples of this repetition training?
RZ: We learn how to move the hose with a clockwise rotation and we practice this over and over, so as soon as we enter the room where the fire is located our body knows exactly how to handle the hose.
MP: We also learn how to tie knots without looking and how to tie knots using one hand, in case we are in a situation where we cannot use both hands. The more we do it, the easier it becomes.
TIR: The mask that you wear is called the SBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). Is it difficult to learn how to operate and breathe using the SBA?
MP: Our first experience with the SBA involved learning how to turn it on and operate it.
RZ: For about three hours, we learned just how to put the SBA on and take it off properly and how to determine when to change the air cylinders and then how to change them.
MP: The mask tells you when the air cylinder is almost empty by vibrating.
DG: When you are wearing the SBA, you can hear yourself breathing and it helps remind you to breathe. After a while, it feels more natural using the SBA.
TIR: There is a lot of teamwork involved in firefighting and your instructors often remind you, “Work smarter, not harder”. What are some ways you have seen teamwork play an important role in your training?
RZ: Well as we mentioned before, pulling the hose through a large building, around corners and to the site of the fire takes a lot of teamwork. It might not seem too exciting to be the third guy down the hose line, but that guy is super important. He is helping us navigate around the corners and pull the hose closer to the fire.
MP: During our training, we learn a lot about the best way to search a building during a fire. When we enter a smoke filled room, we have to work with each other to keep one another safe.
RZ: We leave a light by the entrance and the first firefighter goes in to the left when we enter a smoke filled room and the other enters on the right. We meet one another in the back corner of the room after we have searched the area. We crawl back together toward the light. We talk to one another to guide each other back to the door, especially if it is difficult to see the light through the smoke.
TIR: Scott Russo explained, “Rutherford has a great program established for Junior Firefighters. Paul Dansbach is a great asset to the program and he has really worked hard to prepare these young people.” Before Fire One training, Dennis, Robbie and Michael already had opportunities to work with the experienced members of the Rutherford Fire Department, which made them better prepared for this training.”
TIR: What else can you tell us about the current Junior Firefighter program in Rutherford?
RZ: I think there has been an increase in Junior Firefighter membership and there are about 11 members right now. I think some of the guys join because they hear about it and they are excited to become part of it. Family history helps too. Many of us follow in our parents’ footsteps. We are all one big family and we have each other’s backs.
About The Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute
While visiting the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute, which encompasses Fire, Police & EMS Academies,TIR had the opportunity to speak with the Director of this Facility, Richard Blohm. Blohm is a retired Hoboken Firefighter and Fire Chief and has been an instructor at the Institute since 1995. In 2015, after retiring from the Hoboken Fire Department, he was asked to become the Director of the Institute. TIR asked Blohm a few questions regarding his role as Director.
TIR: When you first arrived on the job as a Director, what were some of the challenges that you faced?
Robert Blohm: The infrastructure was crumbling and it seemed as if very little attention had been paid to the facility. There was not enough equipment and some of the equipment we had was outdated. I knew how bad things were one day when I was unable to find a single hydrant wrench for our students to use during one of their courses. We also did not have adequate lighting for our night classes and we were borrowing lights from Emergency Management. It was clear that changes needed to be made.
TIR: How did you begin to make changes? RB: We are extremely fortunate that our County Executive, James Tedesco, is a former Firefighter and Chief. I have gone to him with many requests and he has always fulfilled them. When he helped us get the lights we needed, we made sure they were LED lights, which saved a lot of money. Now the apparatus that we have is checked every year, as we have 150,000-175,000 students using our facility. Recently, we received 15 million dollars to put even more on the premises. We will be able to build large mall and movie theater building replications where our teams will be able to do more active shooter training. We will be able to do more multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdiction training, which is something we have not had the resources to do much of so far.
TIR: Who can use the facilities at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute?
RB: Those in Bergen County (firefighters, police officers, EMS, etc) can use our training areas free of charge. Other counties in New Jersey and the United Nations also conducts training sessions here. There are 10,000 Police, Fire and EMS trainees who attend classes here. I believe that we are one of the best facilities in New Jersey. We have had people from South Korea actually come visit this site so that they could model their own after ours. When it comes to the Fire One Program, we have some of the best career firefighters working as instructors here. Paul Dansbach, for example, is a career firefighter who is knowledgeable about so many facets of the program. As a Fire Inspector and Fire Official, Dansbach can even teach our trainees how to do mock inspections in high rise buildings.