The Northbrook High School senior likes helping people so much, in fact, that he spent his entire winter break at the Jersey Village Fire Department (JVFD), riding along on emergency calls and helping out where he could.
OK – he didn’t really spend his entire winter break at the fire station. He did go home for four hours on Christmas Day to spend some time with his family.
But Rodriguez and several of his Northbrook High colleagues are serious about firefighting as a career, and are in training at Northbrook High and JVFD. Students – instructor Ken Dies calls them cadets – who successfully complete the academic and practical work and then pass state certification tests will be eligible to hired as firefighters – right out of high school.
“I don’t even look at them as high school kids,” Dies said. “They have to show they’re upping their game.”
Dies, a retired firefighter who wrote the curriculum for the high school fire academy, was hired at Northbrook several years ago to teach engineering. He and SBISD Career and Technical Education (CTE) Director Joe Kolenda had talked about the possibility of a fire academy.
They got with Northbrook High Principal Randolph Adami, who carved out some space near the woodworking area and started the program in the fall of 2015.
Dies needed a department to partner with and found Jersey Village Fire Department, which already had a Junior Firefighter program and that mirrored what Dies wanted to do.
“It’s a small enough department … but large enough to accommodate our students,” Dies said. “Chief (Mark) Bitz really went above and beyond.”
Bitz said that he thinks its “awesome” working with the high school cadets.
“We help kids who are disadvantaged … to get a job in a career” like firefighting, Bitz said. “It’s just a great program, for them and us.”
Principal Adami agrees.
“(The academy) provides students with an excellent opportunity for a career right out of high school,” he said, referencing SBISD’s T-2-4 goal, which looks for every SBISD students to complete a technical certificate, military training or a two- or four-year degree. “It’s a great option for someone that a traditional four-year school isn’t right for.”
Students have to maintain standards just like any fire cadet, and also must keep up their grades to participate in the academy.
Back at Northbrook High, Rodriguez and fellow cadets Roland Royce, Gerardo Espinoza and Stephanie Luna have just finished a timed “bunker” drill, where they dress out in protective gear and breathing apparatus. Standing outside the shop area, they talk about their passion and dedication to firefighting.
Luna became interested in firefighting after watching firefighters work a fire at her apartment complex and saw only one female. “I thought ‘they’re needs to be more females’” in the fire service, she said.
Royce likes firefighting because he can be financially secure and help people at the same time.
“Every time the alarm goes off, somebody’s having a bad day,” he said.
Espinoza appreciates that the academy offers both classroom training and hands-on experience. “A lot of people don’t have both,” he said.
Espinoza, who said he’s been on more than 300 calls with Jersey Village firefighters, tells a visitor that he’s found his passion.
“Man, I love this job.”
By Rusty Graham