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Instructional Excellence: Preparing Students for Life

While most students at Chapel Hill High School (CHHS) learned in classrooms, labs and studios on Monday, October 3, Travis Adkison’s CTE Firefighting Academy students spent the morning in and around the Public Safety building, surrounded by hi-tech equipment, as they received a 101 lesson from the Durham Fire Department (DFD) Hazmat Team.

hazmat training for FF students

All current DFD Hazmat Team members - 11 in all - gathered at CHHS, with five fire engines and tens of thousands of dollars in tools and monitors, to provide a detailed, hours-long introduction of the work they do: responding and mitigating hazardous materials during a range of incidents throughout Durham - and Orange - Counties. As they led demonstrations and simulations for the students, these emergency responders were able to strike an effective balance between seriousness and casual lightheartedness. The Firefighting I and II students watched, asked questions and had hands-on participation in a number of activities.

One of the CHCCS Strategic Plan’s five Key Priorities, Instructional Excellence: Preparing Students for Life, applies precisely to all the pathways of Career and Technical Education (CTE) at CHCCS. The students who complete both courses in the Firefighting Academy are essentially ready to take a job in any fire department as soon as they graduate from high school. They are career-ready in every sense of the phrase.

Because Orange County does not have its own hazmat team, local fire departments, Chapel Hill and Carrboro among them, depend on the highly skilled crew from Durham, who were happy to dedicate the full morning to working with CTE students.

DFD hazmat at CHHS

Student Alex Butler said, “This past Monday we were given an amazing opportunity to be able to meet with the Durham Hazmat Team. Every time I come to this class I learn more and more about this field and I'm always surprised with some sort of new knowledge. Being able to meet with this amazing team gave me insight and information on what the hazmat team really does and has increased my interest in exploring the possibility to one day do the same great work they do.”

After the firefighters laid out an array of equipment inside the bay, and provided information about their use, the group moved outside to participate in a “Red Dragon” demonstration, learning how to burn off hazardous material. Then they gathered in front of the hazmat fire engine to prepare for the simulation. An oil drum had been set up on the blacktop, with several holes leaking a clear liquid. Atkison’s students were divided into teams to perform essential tasks required of a hazmat team encountering an incident including research (understanding properties of potential substances), entry (strategies for approaching the incident for mitigation) and backup (to cover any team that might “go down.”) The students used radios to communicate their discoveries, which in the devised scenario, was a propane leak in an oil drum. 

Nearly every instruction and guideline students heard amplified their awareness of Safety First and the importance of working together at all times. One of the recurring messages delivered to the students was “Hurry up and wait,” emphasizing the sometimes life-or-death line between racing to mitigate an incident, and taking the time to ensure the assessment is accurate, strategies are in place, and all team members are fully suited-up in protective gear while  conditions are being monitored. After the “propane” was identified, the hazmat team members asked the students a stream of questions: What’s the vapor pressure? Which direction is the liquid flowing? Do you need to set up a barrier? What’s your game plan?

Student Bridget Knotts said, “I learned how slow the execution process for a hazardous leak can be. I feel more prepared for upcoming challenges in this area because I was able to go though step by step instructions on what to do. The whole team was very nice and made me feel comfortable in new, different, situations. I’m grateful that they came, and I hope we can see them again.”  Hazmat at CHHS

“What I learned from the hazmat team is the basics of how the equipment functions as well as how to use it in a scenario depicting an actual incident,” student Ian Wruck said. “I think that [the] Durham Fire Department coming to the school helps show what actually happens in a fire department and how interesting the job is. I think that this program definitely gets you career ready because on top of getting state certifications, you get the experience of firefighting and the knowledge of how the firefighting world functions.”

Adkison serves as a role model, leader and true inspiration to his students at CHHS. “My students learned a lot from the hazmat experience,” Adkison said, “and I’m really grateful for the Durham Fire Department team’s willingness to come out and work with them. My goal is to create career firefighters so they can leave school and get well-paying jobs right away.”