COLUMBIA CITY — A new group of local firefighters and emergency medical technicians are ready to serve the public after graduating from the Columbia City High School academy last week.

Eleven firefighters and three EMTs have spent the last year working with Fire Captain Kyle Francis and Paramedic Matt Bock to earn certifications in Fire 1, Fire 2 and EMT.

“Welcome to the fire service. Welcome to the brotherhood. It’s a powerful thing,” Francis said at their commencement.

Last year, CCHS graduated its first group of Fire 1 students. This year, several went on to take the Fire 2 course, and a new group of Fire 1 students joined.

“They are set to go to work if they choose to,” Francis said. “This gives students a well-rounded resume before they graduate high school.”

With many local volunteer fire departments struggling to have enough members, the program is expected to help raise numbers and give students the opportunity to pursue careers in full-time firefighter work.

The EMT course gave students experience in the emergency room, on ambulances and in the field, as well as rigorous coursework.

“They have completed a task that many people begin and never complete,” Bock said. “They have been incredible.”

Students in all three courses gave up personal time on some Saturdays to complete training. EMT students had a textbook of 41 chapters, 1,500 pages — they completed projects, papers, chapter tests and workbooks.

“It’s been a lot but I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Bock said.

Many think of EMT work as first aid, but Bock explained that it has evolved into much more. Patients are treated on scene. These CCHS EMT students can help someone having a heart attack, stroke, difficulty breathing, and can even deliver babies.

Colin Nelson received the Outstanding Firefighter Award. Nelson began the program last year in the Fire 1 course as a sophomore, and finished Fire 2 this year.

“This program has helped me mature as a man and as a firefighter as well,” Nelson said.

Francis has enjoyed watching Nelson’s transformation.

“He’s really focused and dedicated,” Francis said. “He’s grown as a person and a firefighter by leaps and bounds. He knows exactly what he wants out of life and he’s constantly maneuvering to get to that goal.”

Nelson wants to be a full-time firefighter when he graduates from high school.

“I didn’t think I’d be doing this, but I’m blessed to say I am,” Nelson said. “This has taught me a lot about responsibility, integrity, confidence and courage. It’s been life-changing.”

Nelson addressed the group at last week’s ceremony, and thanked Francis for his mentorship.

“Kyle is an amazing instructor. Nothing I can do will thank you enough for everything you’ve done for us,” Nelson said.

Among the graduates were a student from Whitko and Wawasee. Whitko’s Zach Gardner is the son of Cleveland Township Fire Department’s Terry Gardner, and sought out the program himself. Administrators worked out the details, and he was able to be part of the program. The Wawasee student is part of the school district’s agreement with Wawasee in preparing students for careers.

Smith-Green students have the opportunity to participate in the Fire Academy as well through a partnership between the two districts. Several Churubusco students have signed up for the academy to begin in the fall.

Many attended the commencement, including family, friends and mentors, as well as a Fire 1 graduate from last year, Daniel Watts. Watts is training with the Columbia City Fire Department and preparing to take a Fire 2 course.