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Teens joining a blazing battle

Sitting at the dispatch radio one recent evening, Little Pete calls out directions to firefighters in a voice that is confident and businesslike, though a bit high-pitched.

Dispatcher Pete Eiden is called Little Pete for a reason: He's only 13 years old.

Pete is the youngest member of the Magnolia Valley Volunteer Fire Department. But he isn't the only youthful member. Currently, seven boys under 18 are in the department's junior firefighter program.

The juniors learn the ropes about lifesaving and firefighting just like their older counterparts do.

"These guys are just like the seniors," says Chief Brian Burford. "When you get your training, that is what you are allowed to go do. You don't just come back here and wash trucks.

"And no one can tell they are younger. In their gear, they look just like everyone else."

The youths became interested in firefighting for various reasons: a parent who is a firefighter, a need to do something different after school, an accident.

Little Pete's involvement in the junior program was a natural extension of his young life.

Since he was 6 years old, Little Pete has gone to fire stations with his father, Pete Eiden Sr., a former Port Richey firefighter. Little Pete had a natural affinity for the large trucks, and as a junior firefighter he gets a chance to put that love to practical use.

"Well, it's fun and something to do," he says. "I'm learning something new."

Cory Patterson, who has been a junior firefighter for three years, also likes the idea of seeing firsthand what his father, a Pasco County firefighter for the past 17 years, does for a living.

"I thought it was real exciting to see what my dad was going through when he was fighting fires," says Cory, 17. "It's also very exciting to help people get out of bad situations."

Pete Tierney, who has been a junior firefighter for a little over a year, says the desire to join the department was much more traumatic.

"My hand got cut off. That's what got me into the medical field," says Pete, who is focusing on paramedic work.

Two years ago, half of Pete's right hand was severed in an industrial accident in Brooksville. The paramedics who arrived on the scene were able to ice his hand, and doctors later reattached it. The gangly blond 17-year-old got involved with the program a year later. At night, he is studying to be a paramedic.

"I feel like someone saved my life before," he says. "Now I can give it back to them."

The junior program started about the same time the Magnolia Valley Volunteer Fire Department did, says Chief Burford. When the department was incorporated in 1971, the chief at the time had two sons, who helped run dispatch calls and the trucks.

The program accepts youths age 13 to 17 and allows them to do everything a senior firefighter does except enter burning buildings. The department's insurance covers the liability.

The adults make sure the youths don't spend all their time at the station, because school work still takes top priority. Report cards are turned in and grades must be kept above a 1.5 grade point average. If a lieutenant or captain notices grades slipping, the junior will be asked not spend so much time at the station, Burford says.

Burford himself is a product of the program. He joined in 1976 when he was 13 and has stayed with Magnolia Valley. For the past eight years, he also has been a paid firefighter/paramedic with the county. He says his experience as a junior firefighter gave him an edge over other beginning firefighters.

"A lot of people . . . have no idea what firefighting is all about," Burford says. "They join and are still green and have to learn on the job."

Most of the juniors have fought fires and responded to rescue calls.

"There was one scene where a woman was short of breath, and me and Little Pete responded," says Bill van de Plas, 17. "We were checking her out and doing the work. She looked up at me and said, "Boy, they're getting young these days.' "

The juniors also find that their involvement in the program makes them a little different from their friends. They find they have to grow up a lot faster than other kids their age, Bill says.

"You see a lot of difficult things," he says. "Instead of hanging out with your friends and getting in trouble, we're hanging out here instead and learning things."

Bill recently learned just how difficult these things are. Two weeks ago, he responded to a call about a person who had stopped breathing. Experienced at giving CPR, Bill wasn't too worried about being able to help.

But when he got on the scene he wasn't prepared for what he saw: a young couple cradling their infant child who died during the night. The parents were hysterical, he says.

"There was nothing we could do but calm the parents," he says. "It still sends chills. It wasn't the baby dying that was the problem. I mean, the baby is gone to heaven and it's okay. But the parents are there suffering. There was nothing we could do for them."

A recent Sunday afternoon finds the junior firefighters busy. The department responds to two fire calls and a number of medical calls.

"The morning was boring but the afternoon was non-stop," Pete Tierney says.

But the day doesn't stop there. Every Sunday at the fire station, junior and senior firefighters receive training for different types of fires. This day, they are to learn how to put out trash bin fires. Capt. Dennis Keup, who runs the weekly training sessions, picks the subjects based on what sort of fires they have been fighting lately.

"The biggest thing is that we don't want them to lose their fear of fire," Keup says. "They respect it and know what fire and heat is."

So Keup has the firefighters break up into groups of three, each with a junior in its midst. The groups then are asked to pantomime a situation in which they encounter a trash bin fire. They show Keup how they would approach the fire and how they would handle it from different angles. All this is done before the trash bin is lighted.

Then, the trash bin, filled with discarded wood and donated furniture, is lighted and given time to blaze. The first group goes in to fight the blaze. Cory, one of the juniors, is handling the nozzle followed by volunteer firefighters Steve Smith and Jenny Brewer.

The three crouch low, to get the water spray up so it mists over the fire. Cory moves the nozzle in a circular fashion, causing a fog that covers the fire, taking it down.

"Stop!" Keup shouts. "That was a good job, Cory. You went up there right to the edge and got the nozzle up there."

The rest of the firefighters take their turns on the trash bin, each being corrected or praised. At one point Keup has two groups come in and attack the blaze, and has one pantomime being hit by an explosion. The second group scrambles in, takes control of the hose and drags the others out of harm's way.

"What's the rule in saving lives?"

"We're No.

1," the firefighters shout back in unison.

"Because if we can't save ourselves we're no good for anyone else," Cory chimes in.

The rest of the firefighters smile and laugh in agreement.

And as they stand there, dressed in their protective suits and helmets, it is hard to tell the juniors from the seniors _ which is just the way they like it.

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