By John Burton
RED BANK – Today’s fire cadets are tomorrow’s firefighters who might just someday save your life and home.
Red Bank’s Volunteer Fire Department has had a fire cadet program since 1997, according to Melissa Lauterwasser, a former cadet who is now a fire department member.
The common thread Lauterwasser sees among the young cadets is that “they all have an interest in the fire department and want to give back to the community.”
But there’s another feature to the program that the advisors and teenage cadets agree: “Pretty soon you realize it’s pretty cool,” said Elijah Gray, a 15-year-old Red Bank Regional High School student.
“Let’s be honest,” said advisor Nick Ferraro, “being 14 years old, going to high school and saying, ‘Last night I was on a fire call,’ … It’s kind of cool.”
The program currently has eight members.
When Lauterwasser was a member there were 14 but a couple of years ago, enrollment was just two. “It kind of ebbs and flows,” she said.
Lauterwasser and others involved hope to encourage more young people to participate to introduce a new young generation to the rewards and importance of being a member of the fire department.
The cadet program operates under the supervision of the department’s executive fire council and in coordination with the Boy Scouts of America Explorer program. It is available to girls and boys ages 14 to 17. Those age 18 and older can enter the fire academy to join and become full-fledged department members.
The program’s intent is to introduce participants to training and the use of equipment that is needed to fight fires – and to save lives and property.
The hope, Lauterwasser said, is that cadets will look to become department members when they’re old enough, especially because many departments find it increasingly difficult to recruit new members.
The kids get real hands-on experiences, the advisors said, as each month they go to the Middletown Fire Academy and undergo actual training. They learn how to operate equipment and participate in drills. All the members also become certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Along with those activities, cadets work with the local department, learning about the trucks and its equipment. They can accompany the department’s regular members on fire and emergency calls – though they are always kept out of harm’s way – and they lend a hand to help members.
“They’ll ride with us. They’ll bond with us,” Lauterwasser said.
“I’m really happy that I do it,” said Caeli Morris, a 15-year-old Red Bank resident.
Morris, a petite 15-year-old said, “The guys in my class would sometimes laugh when I told them I went on a fire call with my dad.” But she wasn’t deterred. “I told them they should try it.”
Morris pointed to her fellow cadets who were on hand recently at the Navesink Hook and Ladder firehouse on Mechanic Street to talk about the program. “Everyone has smiles on their faces just talking about it,” she observed.
“The cool thing is we get to talk with the firemen and we learn things,” said Christen O’Keefe, Ferraro’s 15-year-old daughter.
“You know, when I think about myself at that age,” he said, “I wish there was some sort of program like this.
“This does give the kids confidence, leadership and maturity,” he said.
Lauterwasser’s involvement in the department appears to be in her DNA. Her father, George Lauterwasser, a longtime department veteran and former department chief, started the fire cadet program 16 years ago; her brother, Joe, served this year as the department’s deputy chief.
“It is very much about bonding,” she said.
A lot of those who’ve made their way through the cadet program have been legacies – from families with long, oftentimes multigenerational membership in the borough department.
But as members age and enrollment drops off, those working with the cadets hope the program will help establish future generations who are willing to give back to the community as members of the fire department.
“It is about developing that sense of community, that sense of responsibility,” Lauterwasser said.
“And, it is really fun,” added Tori Sarullo, a 16-year-old, “especially seeing the faces of guys when they see a girl do something they can’t.”
The program is open to borough residents and those living within 5 miles of the borough.
Additional information about the program is available by calling the Red Bank Fire Department at 732-530-2797.