COLUMBIA CITY — Students in Columbia City High School’s Fire Academy completed their final test, and are set for graduation last week.

Now, six students have the necessary training required to join a volunteer fire department in Whitley County.

The young firemen will be honored with a graduation ceremony June 1 in the high school’s auditorium, and their teacher, Columbia City Firefighter Kyle Francis, couldn’t be more proud.

“This has been an excellent class,” Francis said.

This is the first year for the fire academy, which was created through a partnership with Columbia City’s Fire Department, Whitley County Consolidated Schools and the Whitley County Fire Chiefs Association.

Local leaders recognized the need for more volunteer firemen in the county’s nine fire departments, and thought the academy could encourage new members.

Most of the students are already cadets, and can become full members when they’re adults, thanks to the training they’ve already completed.

One of the reasons volunteer fire departments struggle with retention is the mandated training, which is difficult on most adults.

“There’s over 200 hours of training,” Francis said. “When you have a family and other commitments, it’s hard to accomplish that. We could recruit new members all day long, but when they realize the time commitment, it’s a problem. These students are graduating high school with this in hand.”

With the fire academy, high school students complete the training during the school day, before responsibility of adulthood sets in.

Adult classes are typically held in four-hour increments in the evenings, where the students spent 70 minutes, five days a week, in class with Francis.

It’s the first year for the academy, which will be expanding next school year.

“It’s been a learning experience for both the students and myself,” Francis said.

The students started the year with a variety of work — physical training, lectures and hands-on practice.

“Due to school closures and delays, we had to cut out the physical training. I wanted to focus on studying and practicing skills over and over to create muscle memory.”

For the past three weeks, the students have been finished with book work, and they’ve spent most of their time practicing for their Firefighter 1 skills test, which was completed last Friday at the Southwest Allen County Fire Training Facility.

Columbia Township Fireman Jake Schrader, along with a fireman from Huntington and Fort Wayne fire departments, evaluated the individuals on various skills. Full-time Columbia City Fireman Kyle Francis was also at the facility. Though Francis was there, he wasn’t able to do any coaching.

The training facility has a mock vehicle and a building that can be set on fire and used for practice.

“It’s an amazing facility,” Francis said. Auburn has a similar facility.

Firefighters today are skilled in more than fighting fires. Francis said the students have learned about how to handle hazardous material, technical rescue, sudden infant death syndrome, autism spectrum disorders and drivers safety, among other things.

Two students in the class are seniors and are graduating. The remaining four will return next year to complete the second course, Firefighter 2. Columbia City High School is also partnering with Parkview Whitley EMS to offer an emergency medical technician course next school year. The course will be taught by Matt Bock and Blake Forrester.

WCCS is partnering with neighboring school districts, such as Wawasee, so that each district can provide a wider range of classes to students. As seats in the WCCS public safety classes become available, they will be offered to neighboring districts to provide our students with the best possible opportunities.

So far, there are 16 students signed up for next year’s Firefighter 1 course.

The academy began with a focus on local fire departments.

“The county is growing, the city is growing,” Francis said. “Mayor (Ryan) Daniel has a goal of 10,000 people in the city by 2020 — that’s a big deal. We rely heavily on volunteers in our county.”

The city fire department is the only one in the county that has paid, full-time firemen on staff 24/7, while others are staffed by volunteers.

Senior Daniel Watts said there’s only one thing about the fire academy that he’s displeased with.

“I’m upset I can’t be there next year to finish off the Firefighter 2 and take the EMS course,” Watts said. “But I’m glad they’re offering it for the others.”

Watts joined the department as a cadet in June of last year, but the class has offered more in-depth work for him.

“Being on the fire department as a cadet was one thing, but being in the class I have learned a lot,” Watts said. “It’s hands on and involved. We’ve grown a lot as a team. We have each other’s backs.”

Watts plans to attend Huntington University after graduation to study middle school and elementary education, but he will remain as a volunteer fireman for the city.

Watts said he’s enjoyed having Francis as a captain and teacher.

“If I could go that route with my career, I would love to do it,” Watts said. “Because of this class, being a fireman has become a passion for me.”