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Valley Teens Get Taste of Fire, Police Careers

Van Nuys graduation is held for 200 high school students who complete 10-week programs.

November 24, 2002|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

They could barely see from beneath the bulky helmets, and their jacket sleeves drooped over their wrists, but these teens were too serious to care how they looked.

On command, they grabbed heavy hose lines and darted across the main quad of Valley College in Valley Glen to show they had the right stuff to be firefighters.

The exhibition was part of a graduation ceremony Saturday for 200 San Fernando Valley high school students who completed 10-week programs that introduced them to careers in fire and police services.

And lest anyone think that brawn is better in those lines of work, Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre presented the trophy for the best beginning fire cadet to Miguel Sandoval, who stands 4 feet, 11 inches and weighs 90 pounds. The 14-year-old Polytechnic High freshman was singled out for his infectious gung-ho spirit.

"Teamwork and cooperation are two things we teach that often are crucial to getting the job done," Bamattre said. "Many of these kids will not go on to careers in fire service or criminal justice, but they learn skills they can use all their lives."

Peter Garcia, 17, a San Fernando High School senior who wants to be a police officer, said self-discipline was the top skill he learned. "Like, not to get angry with someone who's angry at me," he said. "And to watch what I say."

The 3-year-old program is jointly run by Valley College, the city Fire Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"These kids give up eight Saturdays to get hands-on training on real equipment," program director John Burke said. "That alone is an accomplishment."

Officials said any high school student can sign up for the academies, offered three times a year, if they're willing to commit the time and energy. Many cadets return each year. Because the program is still new and the participants young, Burke said, only one previous graduate has obtained an emergency services job, which usually requires courses beyond high school.

As about 350 relatives and friends watched Saturday, cadets staged a police response to a protest at an abortion clinic. While shouting, "Stop abortion, let them live!" mock demonstrators were prodded away from the clinic by a moving barricade of stoic cadets, marching shoulder-to-shoulder with horizontally held plastic batons.

Two-student teams also demonstrated how to place tall firefighting ladders against buildings. It's not as easy as it looks, said Grigor Konduralyan, 15, a Grant High sophomore who has long dreamed of being a firefighter. "You have to learn to pay attention to more than one thing going on. You can't accidentally knock someone over with a ladder."

San Fernando High sophomore Margarita Mariscal, 15, said learning about the job first-hand from law officers dispelled any doubts she had about becoming a deputy sheriff.

"I want more than ever to keep other people safe in the community," she said.

Bamattre noted that more than half of the 120 graduating fire cadets were girls, though only 3% of Los Angeles city firefighters are female. "We hope to use this to recruit more women," he said.

Keynote speaker Caprice Young, president of the Los Angeles Unified school board, said there are also academic benefits for the students. "They see how things like chemistry, math and writing really tie closely into success in our lives," she said.

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