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'Amazing experience:' Okeechobee County High School students train to be firefighters

Okeechobee County Fire Rescue hopes to raise next generation of firefighter/EMTs
Okeechobee County High School students train in a firefighter academy program on May 9, 2024.jpg
Posted at 3:06 PM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 15:07:34-04

OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Fla. — Sparking an interest for future firefighters.

Leaders from the Education Foundation of Okeechobee and Okeechobee County Fire Rescue came to one of our recent Let's Hear It events to fill us in on a unique opportunity for students.

High school students get to participate in a fire career technical academy program. They were so proud and excited about their new program that we had to send WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind to check it out.

Okeechobee County High School students train in a firefighter academy program on May 9, 2024 (1).jpg
Okeechobee County High School students train in a firefighter academy program on May 9, 2024.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Let's Hear It | Education

Okeechobee County Fire Rescue has about a 10% staffing shortage right now. When they knew they needed to fill more jobs, they went to the local high school.

15 Okeechobee High School students are running the hoses, getting suited up, searching for the victim, and making the rescue.

"Obviously, the nerves get to me. But I love that," student Matthew Gilmore said. "I love the feeling of adrenaline, and it's exhilarating."

Okeechobee County High School student Matthew Gilmore speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on May 9, 2024.jpg
Okeechobee County High School student Matthew Gilmore speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on May 9, 2024.

Gilmore still can't believe he's learning how to be a firefighter as part of a high school class.

"It's a lot different from normal academics. And I'm so grateful for that because I love hands-on. That's the way I learn best," Gilmore said.

The program just started in January at Okeechobee High School.

"Most of the time, we are either outside working on the hoses, inside working on drills, or coming out here," student Amber Cook said.

Okeechobee County High School student Amber Cook speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on May 9, 2024.jpg
Okeechobee County High School student Amber Cook speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on May 9, 2024.

It's a partnership sparked by the need for more firefighter/emergency medical technicians in Okeechobee County.

"We want these people working for us," lead instructor Lt. Jeremy Morgan said. "We're setting up the future for our department. And that's something I want to be a part of."

WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind speaks to Okeechobee County Fire Rescue Lt. Jeremy Morgan on May 9, 2024.jpg
WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind speaks to Okeechobee County Fire Rescue Lt. Jeremy Morgan on May 9, 2024.

Morgan said it was an adjustment for the students at first, but now they're blazing the trail forward.

"So far, we have seven seniors in the program now. And five of them are enrolling in the EMT program in June. So it's doing its job," Morgan said.

Students still need to attend EMT school and the fire academy before they can suit up on the job. But this program helps show them the way.

Okeechobee County High School students train in a firefighter academy program on May 9, 2024 (2).jpg
Okeechobee County High School students train in a firefighter academy program on May 9, 2024.

"I think it's an amazing experience that hardly anybody gets to experience themselves," Cook said. "So I think for us to be able to be the first year doing this, I think it's a huge privilege. And I'm very proud to say I'm one of the first to do it."

"That's the one thing I regret. That this program wasn't started sooner," Gilmore said.

The program is already expanding for next year. They're adding another class and they'll have more than 20 students.