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WATCH NOW: Youth fire fighter training grant funds class in Onalaska

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ONALASKA—Like many high school students, Holmen High School senior Luke LeClaire was uncertain of his post-high school future.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career,” he said.

A year of firefighting and emergency medical response classes changed that.

LeClaire will pursue a career as a professional firefighter after enrolling in Western Technical College’s fire protection technician program. He was one of seven high school seniors who completed a year of classes held at the Onalaska Fire Department.

The efforts of Western and the fire department were recognized by the state Department of Safety and Professional Services, which presented a $22,000 youth firefighter training grant Tuesday in Onalaska. DSPS secretary Dawn Crim said the grant will help train the next generation of emergency responders.

“Today, I am here to ensure we have funds for recruitment and retention,” Crim said.

Recruitment and retention are significant issues for protective services, said Onalaska Fire Chief Troy Gudie.

“Recruitment is a challenge,” he said. “Families are busier, and it’s becoming more difficult to fill vacant positions.”

Gudie said reaching out to young people while they’re still in high school is an important step.

“The vision and goal of this program is to get high school students at a young age to enter into an exciting career as a professional firefighter,” he said.

When the class began Sept. 7, 2021, it was the first of its kind in La Crosse County. Classes were held Monday through Thursday from 7:30 to 9 a.m. (and a few Saturdays) and lasted the entire school year. The first semester covered firefighting, and the second semester covered emergency medical response.

Seven of the nine students who enrolled completed the course in May, and two are already certified as paid on-call firefighters. Four others are enrolled in Western’s fire protection program.

“I just took the class to see if I liked it, and I really enjoyed it,” LeClaire said. “I’m really glad I took the class.”

The seven graduates are from six different area high schools. The class was taught by Onalaska Fire Department training officer Rick Molzahn, who was impressed by the willingness of students to apply themselves early in the morning despite coming from as far away as Westby and Mauston.

Students got hands-on training with protective gear, maintaining fire hoses and other fire equipment and scaling the 35-story ladder tower at Western’s public safety training facility in Sparta. That was followed by a 100-question multiple-choice exam and a hands-on practical test.

Molzahn said the fire station was a good place to conduct classes.

“They would come in the morning and see the trucks, and when they leave, they would see the full-timers working on the trucks, and they got to talk and interact with (the firefighters),” he said.

Molzahn said 14 students are signed up for the 2022-23 class.

Western president Roger Stanford said the grant money is just the beginning. He said the next step is to “take this level of investment and turn it into credits and degrees.”

“We were able to come together and be the middle person — to work with K-12 and work with a fire district like Onalaska,” Stanford said.

La Crosse Tribune reporter Steve Rundio can be reached at steve.rundio@lee.net.

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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