On a mild spring day, Cory Pippen suits up in firefighter’s gear outside Therrell High School as he prepares to climb Atlanta fire Truck 25.
No, he’s not putting out a fire or saving someone from a burning building, but with the help of the Atlanta Fire Department, he is one step closer to a dream he’s had since he was a child: being a firefighter.
Pippen is one of 19 students enrolled in Essentials of Fire and Emergency Services, a class offered to Therrell High School students as part of AFD’s Delayed Entry program — a recruiting tool for the department currently short about 200 firefighters.
The high school course, which has been in the works since 2017, is being piloted at Therrell but will expand to all Atlanta public high schools in the 2020-2021 school year, Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Seth Coleman said. Through a combination of hands-on training and classroom instruction — taught by a former Atlanta fire captain — students learn the core values of being a firefighter and safety precautions.
“A lot of this is building confidence,” Atlanta fire Lt. Sharyl Chatman and program liaison said. “We just want to see who has a spirit of service and who has the physical and emotional will to look at a profession like fire and emergency services.”
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Upon completion of the program, students will be eligible for an internship with AFD.
The hands-on aspect is beneficial to Pippen, a graduating senior whose counselor told him about the class.
“I’ve always liked fire, but this was my first time being introduced to it,” he said. Despite his interest, Pippen was initially concerned his asthma would hinder him.
“It was something I got over,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of heroes make sacrifices.”
Pippen plans to pursue his career right after high school — and Atlanta fire could use the help.
The department is looking to hire 70 recruits by May and an additional 70 by the winter. Currently, there are two recruiting classes with a total of 71 recruits. But the department’s biggest losses have come from retirement; they lost about 85 employees last year.
Atlanta’s recruitment shortfall is the highest of those in the metro area: Cobb, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties are short 47, 15 and seven firefighters, respectively.
Those departments have also aimed their recruiting efforts at high schools and in many cases have seen success. Cobb County Fire Department has hired students that participated in its Explorer Program, which exposes 14- to 18-year-olds to skills needed to be a firefighter. DeKalb fire, which has a similar program, partnered with its school district to host its first career fair which yielded 75 candidates. Atlanta fire also plans to visit each APS high school for career fairs in the days before seniors graduate.
So far, AFD’s inaugural program at Therrell High has served its purpose: five students have expressed an interest in becoming firefighters.
Taianah Williams, 17, wanted to be a homicide detective before she began the class, but she’s been drawn to the EMS aspect of the class.
“The course has taught me to try new things and be a risk taker,” said Williams, who is the only junior in the class.
Senior DeiAndre Penny, 17, said the class was placed on his schedule but admitted he had a small interest in firefighting.
“I always had a knack of helping people and making sure things are taken care of,” Penny said.
Penny had previously been a lifeguard at John A. White Park in southwest Atlanta, so the safety aspect of firefighting was familiar to him.
While Penny doesn’t plan on becoming a firefighter, the class has taught him one thing: firefighting is about service.
“It’s more than just climbing ladders and putting out fires,” he said. “It’s about tending to your community and making sure they’re safe.”
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