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New Pilot Program for Volunteer Fire Company

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SUSSEX COUNTY, Del. - The Roxana Volunteer Fire Department has partnered with the Indian River School District for a new pilot program aimed at getting middle schoolers involved in fire department activities.

Roxana Fire Chief Chris Uibel and Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett formally announced the program Monday at a ceremony at the fire house. Anyone ages 10-14 can take part in the cadet program, titled Operation Gem, where they'll learn fire safety, CPR and leadership skills. Chief Uibel says they'll also take part in parades that the department is in, and even have the opportunity to go out to fire scenes after they are safe and secure. Arlett and Uibel say the program is targeted at middle schoolers so when they turn 15, they can seamlessly transition into becoming a junior firefighter. Uibel says it's important to get kids involved while they are younger, as there are so many competing extracurriculars as they age.

"At 14, they are playing two to three sports and are too busy to add an event to their schedule," he told WBOC. "So if we get them in now, they say 'This is what I want to do.'" 

Uibel adds that many academic programs and scholarships require volunteer hours from students, and Operation Gem will provide those necessary hours.

Terry Jester, the President of the Delaware State Fire Chiefs Association says this program will be instrumental in increasing recruitment for volunteer fire companies.

"We're at a crossroads at our states as far as volunteers," he said. "So I'm hoping this will be something that can save us." 

Jester says if volunteer fire companies cannot get enough recruits, Sussex County may be forced to increase taxes in order to hire firefighters. Arlett says this program will help avoid that, as well as provide valuable mentorship.

"I'm not looking to raise any taxes. We want to keep this as a volunteer fire service and part of our community," Arlett said. "It's something I think the youth will embrace-- they are looking for leadership, they are looking for involvement, they are looking for mentors. And this is a perfect opportunity to seek what they are looking for." 

The program will also include a daily elective class at Millsboro Middle School for interested students. Arlett says they are also in the process of creating an after school program at Selbyville Middle School. Additionally, the program has monthly meetings on the first Sunday each month, aimed at cadets who live in different school districts or are home schooled. Arlett and Uibel hope to expand the program to high schools and adult education programs in the next few years, and hope other fire companies adopt the program as well.

Chief Uibel says the program will also include community gatherings, such as movie nights and a reading assistance program. He says all of this is on a volunteer basis, and while it may not pay, it's incredibly rewarding.

"There's an old saying that if you're an old firefighter, the greatest thing you can do is teach a young firefighter how to be a old firefighter," he says with a smile. "It makes you feel good at night."

Anyone interested in the program can contact the Roxana Volunteer Fire Company

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