PORTLAND — While many teenagers spend Saturday morning in bed or on a playing field, 11 students from Portland and Deering high schools spent their Saturday morning crawling through a vacant building at 65 Elm St. in thick smoke while wearing 80 pounds of firefighting equipment.

The teens were getting their first experience donning and doffing firefighting gear as part of their yearlong Introduction and Orientation to Fire Service course offered through the Portland school department.

The course is funded through the Pathways to Success initiative designed to make public high school more relevant by exploring potential careers through classes, such as the fire service course, and job shadowing. The initiative, which is funded with $5.3 million from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, includes internships at local businesses and institutions, such as the Children’s Museum, American Red Cross and the University of New England. The initiative is a joint venture of Portland Public Schools, Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, Learning Works and the Portland Immigration and Refugee Service.

Portland High School teacher Rocco Frenzilli and Portland Fire Department Capt. Philip McGouldrick provide the instruction, with help from other fire department members.

Frenzilli said he didn’t know much about firefighting when he was asked to teach the course but learned a lot during the summer when he rode along on several calls.

“From day one, I gained such respect for what firefighters do,” said Frenzilli.

While the students have spent time at the Central and Bramhall fire stations, this was the first time they experienced a simulated fire, searching a smoky building for possible victims. The Portland Fire Department equipped each of the students with the gear, at $2,000 per set.

“This is like Christmas for us,” said Owen Sprague, 15, a sophomore at Deering High.

But first they had to learn how to don their equipment, a surprising complex undertaking. They climbed into padded two-piece protective suits, pulled on knee-high boots and slid hands into thick orange gloves, while instructor Capt. Chris Goodall shouted encouragement.

Then they had to take it all off, leaving the pants rolled down just so, enabling them to jump into the suit quickly for the next call.

Then they did it again. And again. And again.

“Sometimes it’s just learning by doing,” said Goodall.

Next the students learned how to put on their air packs.

“The air pack is the backbone of equipment. Without it you can’t go inside the building,” said McGouldrick.

One of the tricks to the air pack is to keep moving, since it will start emitting a beeping alert, which increases in volume to ear splitting levels if it remains motionless for 45 seconds.

Every so often the students had to give themselves a shake to silence the alarms.

The exercise culminated with searches through the vacant building, a former teen shelter owned by Avesta Housing, complete with theatrical smoke to obscure visibility.

Silas Corman, 17, a Portland High senior, said learning how to use the equipment was harder than he expected but he enjoys the course, which he took to help him figure out what he wants to do when he grows up.

“This is my favorite class. It is hands on and something I didn’t know anything about,” Corman said.

Sprague said the course will bring him one step closer to his lifelong dream of becoming a professional firefighter.

“It runs in the family,” Sprague said.

Ulrich Kavuyimbo, 19, a Portland High senior, said there were few professional firefighters in his native Burundi. He said villagers would douse fires with salt and water. He said he now views firefighting as a possible career.

“I would consider it,” Kavuyimbo said. 

Beth Quimby can be reached at 791-6363 at:

bquimby@pressherald.com