West Penn Fire Company Chief Dennis Fritzinger Jr. gives the word, and volunteer firefighters Connor Evans, Emily Pratka and Steven Troxell pull complicated equipment from the back of a fire truck, place it gently on a tarp and, working as a team, assemble it, all within a minute or so.

Not bad for three teenagers.

Connor, 17; Emily, 15; and Steven, 17, are junior firefighters, young people who are learning the ropes, supporting their fire companies and are the advance guard of a new generation of emergency responders.

To Fritzinger, they invaluable.

"Junior firefighters are essential to the fire department because they are the next generation to take over," he says. Among their responsibilities are getting tools and setting up equipment at fire scenes.

"That's a great support because it doesn't take time away from one of our front-line officers or front-line firefighters, who would have to run and get the tools," Fritzinger says. West Penn currently has four junior firefighters; several others have moved up to adult status.

Teenagers can become junior firefighters in Pennsylvania at age 14.

Although no agency tracks the numbers of junior firefighters, the National Volunteer Fire Council has 1,300 registered programs, 200 of which are in Pennsylvania, including Jim Thorpe, Hometown and Weatherly.

Most local fire companies have junior firefighters, and the benefits flow both ways.

"Through junior firefighter programs, teens learn about the fire service, give back to their community, and develop important life skills that will help them in the future," says National Volunteer Fire Council spokeswoman Kimberly Quiros.

A crucial component

"For every two guys who are in a (burning) building, you need two guys outside. Junior firefighters can't go inside a building, but there is so much they can do outside cleanup, that's the biggest part. Cleaning hose, changing out air packs, and cleaning air packs to get them ready for the next call," says Lansford First Assistant Chief Ron Hood of American Fire Co. No. 1.

He's grateful for the work of junior volunteers Cassandra Schmitt, 17, and Brittany Paules, 15.

"Junior firefighters do a lot of training. Then, when they turn 18, they can hit the ground running," he says.

Bryn Zellner knows this firsthand. He joined as a junior firefighter at age 16. Now, he's 26, and a lieutenant at American Fire Co. No. 1.

"It was something I had always wanted to do," he says. "I signed up, I got hooked and I've stuck with it ever since."

His colleague, Josh Hontz, also joined as a junior firefighter at age 15. He's now 21. The most important thing he says he learned was how to "stay safe while doing everything."

"Junior firefighter programs are a fun way for youth to learn very important skills and lessons, regardless of whether they become an adult firefighter or not," Quiros says. "The National Junior Firefighter Program provides resources to help local departments attract young volunteers. Building community connections is a key factor in recruiting for a junior firefighter program, and often the best recruiting tool are the current members, both juniors and adults."

State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann praises the program.

"I firmly believe that having junior firefighters involved with the fire service is very beneficial to the future of the fire service. With the right leadership, the juniors can provide a valuable service to the fire department and community. Ultimately not all the juniors will stay with the fire service, however this still proves to be beneficial to the fire department because of relationship that was developed," he says.

"From a personal point of view, my son started as a junior at age 14. Today, at age 18, he is a regular member. He has moved through several advanced classes and currently works as a paid emergency medical technician with a local ambulance service. He plans to become a paramedic and pursue a career as a firefighter paramedic," Mann says.

Most volunteer organizations, including fire companies, are now struggling to find and keep members. Junior firefighter programs are one way to recruit volunteers.

"Junior firefighters are the future of the fire service. These programs are especially critical to the volunteer fire service. While 70 percent of all firefighters are volunteers, the number is 14 percent lower than it was 25 years ago," Quiros says. "As the number of volunteers are declining, the number of calls to fire departments are increasing. The volunteer fire service is also an aging population. Junior firefighter programs provide a way for youth to engage in the fire service early so that they may one day join the fire service, or at least become a community supporter of their local fire department. This is key in making sure that the volunteer fire service continues to thrive."

Laws protect junior firefighters

All states have laws designed to protect junior firefighters. In Pennsylvania, firefighters must be at least 18 years old to be allowed to drive fire vehicles. However, junior firefighters who are at least 16 years old and have successfully completed training in basic fire fighting may battle blazes, but only under close supervision by the fire chief, an experienced line officer or a designated forest fire warden.

According to state labor laws, firefighters must be at least 18 years old to operate aerial ladders, aerial platforms or hydraulic jacks; use rubber electrical gloves, insulated wire gloves, insulated wire cutters, life nets or acetylene cutting units; operate the pumps of any fire vehicle while at the scene of a fire, or enter a burning structure.

Junior firefighters who are under 16 years old may participate in training; provide first aid; clean up at fire scenes after the fire is out, but not inside the structure that had been burning; staff coffee wagons and food carts.

They may not operate high-pressure hose lines or climb ladders, except during training; nor may they enter burning structures.

Lansford's Chief Hood goes a step further.

"They do have to keep their grades up," he says. "We check report cards."

What do junior firefighters learn?

"It's the best time of their lives to learn they are easier to teach, easier for them to maneuver around to take (the 100 hours of) classes," Fritzinger says.

"Some teens join because they want to one day become a firefighter, others simply want to learn more about the fire service, while others have friends and/or family that turned their interest to the program. Junior firefighting programs can also fill volunteer requirements that some schools have," Quiros says.

Connor Evans joined a month after his 14th birthday. For Connor, becoming a firefighter is just natural.

"My family's been in it, I knew pretty much everybody who is in the fire service here. It's kind of like, in the family, kind of in my blood."

What's the most important thing he's been doing as a junior firefighter?

"Helping the firefighters out on scene, like changing air bottles, getting the equipment ready," he says, "because you know what you are doing can possibly be saving somebody else."

Steven Troxell, whose brother Cloyd is a firefighter, joined the program in January. Steven enjoys learning about the trucks and the equipment they carry.

"I went over all the trucks. Connor helped me. And I learned all the tools," he says. Steven eagerly anticipates the day when he can finally learn to actually drive those trucks.

Emily Pratka joined at 14.

"My parents, Paula and Kevin, are firefighters, and I was interested in getting into it, too. I loved watching them."

Her favorite part of the junior firefighter program?

"Riding in the fire trucks, and the fact that every thing we do can help save lives. Every little part counts," she says.

It was her own terrifying experience that prompted American Fire Co. No. 1 volunteer Cassandra Schmitt to join at age 15.

"I joined because my house caught fire down in Bethlehem, and I saw how everyone rushed in to help, and I thought, I'd like to be that person helping out," she says.

She says helping people is the most important thing she's learned.

"As soon as you hear that page, try to get there as fast as you can," she says.

Her fellow volunteer, Brittany Paules, cited the example set by a relative as the driving force behind her decision to join up at age 14.

"My uncle, Matthew Verba, was a firefighter when I was little, and I looked up to him," she says.

She says she likes learning how to set up equipment, including hooking hydrants up to the fire trucks.

"Junior firefighters receive training in firefighting and emergency response skills, which will help them if they decide to one day become a first responder." says Quiros. "They also learn important life skills such as teamwork, responsibility, leadership, the importance of volunteerism and giving back to the community, commitment, and much more. Junior firefighters can also assist the fire/EMS department with non-operational tasks such as special events, fundraising, parades, and more."