- Associated Press - Saturday, November 28, 2020

MAQUOKETA, Iowa (AP) - Hunter Connolly and Payton Schueller, both 17-year-old seniors at Maquoketa High School, both grew up with fathers serving as volunteer firefighters.

“I remember watching him leave for calls in the middle of the night,” Connolly said. “Growing up, you just want to do what they do, and that was the one thing we never got to go with them to.”

“A lot of the department guys would come over to our house to watch football games, so we were just around those guys a lot,” Schueller told the Telegraph Herald.

Both teens have had the opportunity to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and fulfill their desire to volunteer with the Maquoketa Fire Department this year, joining the ranks several weeks ago.

So far, they’ve learned skills like hooking up a hose to a fire hydrant, familiarizing themselves with all the tools needed on calls, and they have been equipped with their own gear.

The Maquoketa Fire Department created a program three years ago modeled after the National Junior Firefighter Program, which aims to engage young people in fire and emergency services.

Maquoketa firefighter Rian Meyeres said he was approached three years ago by his son, Tyler, about finding a way for high schoolers to join the department. Meyeres then got connected to city and school officials to implement the program in Maquoketa.

“We started three years ago with my son, we had one last year and two this year, so it’s growing,” he said.

Tyler Meyeres, who now attends college at Iowa State University, said the program helped him a lot through his high school career. His work even inspired some of his friends to join fire departments after graduation.

“Firefighters are average, everyday heroes,” he said. “This program taught me that you don’t have to be a superhero, normal people can be firefighters, too.”

The program also targets a struggle volunteer fire departments have been trying to overcome for years: a lack of younger recruits seeking to volunteer. Meyeres noted that the average age of a volunteer firefighter is 45 to 48 years old.

“Bringing them in at an early age and exposing them to emergency services benefits them and maybe a future fire department,” he said.

Maquoketa Fire Chief Matt Tranel said he’s noticed more younger volunteers come in to the department in the last three years since the high school program began. Currently, the Maquoketa department has 30 volunteers.

“I hope they keep their interest after high school,” Tranel said of their high school recruits. “I hope it piques their interest.”

The young firefighters attend the same trainings and meetings that any other volunteer would, he said, including taking the same written and physical tests before officially joining. They also have to keep their grades up in order to respond to calls.

Meyeres said they wouldn’t put any of their teenage firefighters in more extreme dangerous situations, but they both can help out with hoses and ladders when calls come in.

Since the fire department is often called along with police officers and EMS services, those in the program are exposed to the full spectrum of emergency services - though they can’t have their pagers on during school, Meyeres noted.

Neither Schueller nor Connolly have been able to go out on a call yet, but they both noted they’re most looking forward to having that opportunity.

Both guys also said they liked being able to give back to the community through their service, and Schueller noted he’s even heard some fellow classmates express a wish for the police department to offer a similar opportunity.

“You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Connolly said. “Everyone here is volunteering, they’re not getting paid for this. The department does a lot for the community.”

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