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Teenage first responders making a difference

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When there's an emergency in Lewis County, there's a good chance at least one high school student will answer the call.

All of the county's emergency responders are volunteers. The R-4 Fire Protection District faces the same challenges as a lot of departments - the age of volunteers is increasing, and fewer volunteers work in the area during the day, which makes responding to emergencies difficult.

It's a school night, but between homework assignments, these teenagers are learning skills that could help save your life.

Highland High School Junior Austin Stark, 17, said, "It's a committment, but when you save someone's life, there's no feeling like it."

Some, like 18-year-old Leanne Pierce, are certified EMTs; others, like 18-year-old Garth Wilson, are certified first responders and firefighters. Whatever their age, they're highly trained volunteers who want to help their neighbors in traumatic situations.

Pierce said, ""Every call is different, you don't know what to expect." A lot of your training kicks in when the call comes in, and it all comes back to training."

Zach Mathes, 18, said, "For you, you've went through all the training and set through hours of class and you actually get to put it to work, it's the best part. It's a big adrenaline rush and you get to go out and help people when you can."

Garth Wilson, 18, said, "The way you feel after you help somebody is very rewarding."

Most of these teenagers fell into the business of saving lives, growing up in families where calls in the middle of the night were normal routine. At age 17, Austin Stark already has been on the R-4 Fire protection District for four years. Now he's finishing up his own EMT license. He says age doesn't matter when responding to a life-and-death emergency like this recent fire near Durham.

Stark said, "What kind of reaction do you get when you respond? Sometimes it's kind of like you're really a first responder and sometimes it's like they're leery, but if you walk in there and act like you know what you're doing, they understand. When we're on scene, it's professional."

Merritt Lomax, age 18, said, "There's really no real reaction, they are just happy someone is there to help."

During the day, these teenage first responders are even more vital. As with any small community, more and more volunteer responders are heading to work miles away in larger towns, leaving few to respond to emergencies. These students are on call, even when at school or local events, to help when seconds count.

Fire Chief Doug Vaughn said, "If they're at a sporting event or ballgame, we've had incidents there, and they were already in the crowd and some of them have their own kits in their vehicles, Sometimes we have an initial response on the scene even before 911 is called."

Tom Stark, Medical Officer for R-4 Fire Protection District, said, "They're very important because a lot of people on the department are getting older, and they're full of energy and are not afraid to jump in and get their hands dirty."

Chief Vaughn said, "I think the people in our fire district can rest easy every night knowing if they have a problem, they're going to have folks show up to help. And I'm not talking folks with a little training, but people with a lot of training."

And as you can see, this life-saving tradition continues, with these pre-teen Junior Firefighters who are learning the ropes now, in order to fill the boots of older volunteers later.

In case you're wondering what kind of training these kids go through...firefighters have to pass a rigorous two-month basic firefighting class as well as monthly training sessions.

First responders and EMTs go through much more rigorous training and testing.

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By the way, several of these teenagers we talked with told us after their experiences, they plan to pursue careers in firefighting and paramedic school.

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