Markham Fire cadet program blazes new trails for special needs teens

Markham Fire cadet program blazes new trails for special needs teens

The City of Markham's firefighters proudly don their uniforms and inspire others with their bravery, and the latest recruits of their innovative cadet program are no exception.

The city boasts the only fire cadet program for students with special needs in Ontario and — to the best of Markham Fire and Emergency Services’ knowledge — across Canada and the United States as well.

“My favourite part was meeting everyone and learning new things,” said Vithushan Jeyaratnam, a Markham District High School Grade 12 student, who — along with Grade 9 students Joshua Fraser and Daniel Abbate — completed the program that sets the city and its fire services apart from the rest of North America.

Grateful for the opportunity, Jeyaratnam said he was “very proud” to be part of a “great profession” that has helping people at its heart.

“It was fun and I would definitely recommend this program to other students,” he said with enthusiasm matched by his beaming smile.

“When we were developing the program, we couldn’t find anything of its kind anywhere, so we essentially started it from scratch,” explained deputy fire chief Adam Grant, who created the initiative in 2009.

The 11-week program allows participants to experience all aspects of the work associated with the large urban department, including fire prevention, public education, training, dispatch and suppression.

As the latest recruits, Jeyaratnam, Fraser and Abbate participated in a wide range of activities, such as getting suited up in bunker gear and strapped to oxygen tanks, giving station tours to classmates, and conducting power point presentations on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

The end goal isn’t a job, but rather the “soft skills” associated with the work placement: the department’s reporting structure, professionalism, public speaking, teamwork, punctuality and respect, Grant explained.

“These skills will be transferable to any other career path they may choose," said Grant, adding the response from students has been the most rewarding aspect of the program by far.

“They see the firetrucks and dream about being a firefighter, and giving them the opportunity to wear the uniform — get first-hand knowledge of what we do on a daily basis — is not only an experience of a lifetime for them, but also heartwarming for us.”

Mayor Frank Scarpitti called the trio is an "inspiration" to the men and women of the fire service during their graduation ceremony at Markham Civic Centre Feb. 18.

“The three of you are at the heart of what motivates the fire and emergency services for doing what they do with this particular program, and I have to say you impressed us with your determination, your positive outlook on life, your enthusiasm and, most of all, your willingness to learn,” Scarpitti said.

The program's hands-on style was a huge draw for the trio's lead teacher, Deepika Puri, who noted a huge change in the students upon completion of the program.

"They were doing presentations in front of the class, which they never did before, and going around the school asking everybody to check their smoke alarms," she laughed.

“The soft skills came, too, but just the fact that they took such pride in what they were doing, for me, that was a highlight,” Puri added, becoming emotional when describing the impact of an experience "that will stay with them throughout their entire lives."

The educator urged other fire departments to take notice of what Markham is doing and follow its lead.

“This needs to be done in every city. I thank the City of Markham — and especially its fire services — for offering such an amazing and selfless program. There’s nothing ‘in it’ for them, but we, as a community, get everything out of it."

Beyond the cultural aspect, inclusivity is about ensuring people of all abilities get access to programs and opportunities, Scarpitti said of the program, which has "far exceeded expectations."

Fire Chief Dave Decker, who often points to fire prevention and education as the service's "first line of defence," said part of that is making sure everyone in the community — of all age groups and demographics — is engaged at all times.

He added the city's latest cadets have gained some lifelong experiences that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

"We are very proud of their efforts,” he added.

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