During a recent class of the Walkertown High School Fire Academy, a loud buzzer sounded as Eddie Bottoms was instructing his students on the basic components of the “incident command system” and how to be an incident commander.
Moving quickly away from their desks and chairs, the five students reached for their turnout gear that was nearby — hoods, coats, pants, helmets, gloves and boots.
Once fully outfitted, the students made their way, one by one, into the hallway and stood against the wall for inspection.
Ryan Meadows, 17, and Joseph Coalson, Cruz Del-Real, McCray McGee, and Mirelzi Pelaez, all 15, had just gone through a simulation of a fire station that had received a dispatch.
“A minute and 31 seconds,” said Bottoms, the teacher of the fire academy, as he referred to the amount of time it took the students to respond to a fire bell.
“What’s our goal?” said Bottoms. “Sixty seconds, right? That’s kind of a fire department industry standard. No matter where you are in the building, no matter what you’re doing in the building, the bell rings, you’re to the truck. You’re in your gear. You’re on the truck and hopefully out the door in 60 seconds.”
The fire academy program was established in the fall of 2015 at Walkertown High School by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in accordance with the N.C. Office of the State Fire Marshal. It is part of the career and technical education, or CTE, courses offered at the high school.
“Our program is designed to bring students into a fire service world to learn about firefighter operations, skills needed, the academic requirements of being a professional firefighter,” Bottoms said.
The fire academy program covers a majority of the modules for the N.C. Firefighter certification over three semesters. Participants can be Walkertown High sophomores, juniors and seniors.
The modules include orientation and safety, protective equipment, ventilation, fire behavior and ladders.
On average, there are between 15 and 30 students in the fire academy each semester, depending on the number of public safety classes offered in a semester.
Walkertown High has had a public safety academy since the fall of 2014, and an EMT academy since 2018.
The public safety courses are used as a lead-in to the fire academy.
“Not every student that does public safety goes into the fire academy,” Bottoms said.
The Walkertown Fire Department is the fire academy’s supporting fire department on record, but Bottoms said that all surrounding fire departments provide help for the program.
The local school district plans to offer a second fire academy at Glenn High School.
Several students in the fire academy said they plan to take all three of the Firefighter Technology courses offered in the program.
Part of the reason McGee transferred to Walkertown High in his freshman year was to be in the fire academy.
He really wants to be a special education teacher but said that being a firefighter is an option for him.
“The fire academy just teaches discipline,” McGee said.
He is interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter.
“I just feel like everyone should give back to the community they came from,” McGee said.
Coalson wants to be a career firefighter and enjoys his class visits to the Walkertown Fire Department, which is within walking distance from Walkertown High.
“It gives you more insight into what you’re looking into as a job,” Coalson said.
Pelaez said she took the program to challenge herself.
“It teaches me a lot of things that I’m going to need to know in order to volunteer and Chief Bottoms is really a great person,” Pelaez said.
She encouraged more students to explore the program.
Meadows has wanted to be a career firefighter for the past three years and has been a volunteer at the Walkertown Fire Department for just over a month.
He likes the firefighter brotherhood and learning things.
“You’re always learning something,” Meadows said. “It never stops.”
Del-Real wants to go to college for mechanical engineering but is looking into firefighting as a backup career.
“The other day Chief (Bottoms) told me about engineering for a firefighter. You design buildings and stuff like that, so I might look into that,” Del-Real said.
Decline in volunteer firefighters
Students in the fire academy call Bottoms “Chief.”
Bottoms, who is also the deputy chief for Rural Hall Fire Department, has been a volunteer firefighter since 1985 and was a 30-year professional career firefighter. In 2015, he became a full-time teacher at Walkertown High after retiring as a battalion chief from the Winston-Salem Fire Department.
“I never saw myself being a teacher, but when the opportunity came, it just made sense,” Bottoms said.
He said he likes to teach, talk and give back to the community.
“There’s just a big part of doing something for others that means more than what you do for yourself,” Bottoms said. “Being able to teach these young people and seeing them move out into a community and be in the fire service and stuff is pretty rewarding.”
As a volunteer firefighter himself, Bottoms knows all about the decline in volunteer firefighters in Forsyth County.
“In the volunteer fire service, we’re struggling to get volunteers,” he said. “So down the road, out in the county, if we don’t do something to regrow our volunteer fire service then we’re going to grow our taxes, or we’re not going to have fire departments.”
Bottoms' ultimate goal would be for young people to gain interest in the fire service through the fire academy and become professional firefighters.
“But at the same time, one of the things that we are doing with this program is we’re supporting and we’re helping to grow our volunteer fire service,” he said.
Bottoms said that from the fire academy’s inception to now, the program has added about 30 members to surrounding volunteer fire departments in the community and a couple of students have gone on to career positions at fire departments.
He said that young people who are volunteering in volunteer fire departments carry a huge economic value.
“For every volunteer firefighter that comes out of a fire academy program, that’s a salary in a volunteer fire department that’s not having to be paid by raising taxes,” Bottoms said.