Plum junior fire academy graduates 27 cadets from multiple communities

Trent Blum has aspirations to become a firefighter.

“I like being outside (and) I like being able to help people,” said Trent, 14. “Having the opportunity to do all that would be quite amazing.”

The Bethel Park teen heads into his freshman year of high school with a strong head start to a possible career path with knowledge gained through Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Department’s Junior Fire Academy.

The Plum fire station’s week-long training effort in June included instruction on fire behavior, equipment and proper use as well as numerous hands-on activities such as vehicle extraction, rescues and teamwork drills.

“My favorite (part of the academy) would probably be the swift water rescue,” Trent said. “It was definitely fun learning how to throw ropes and learn how to rescue someone if they’re in trouble.”

It culminated with a trip to Pittsburgh’s fire academy, where cadets showcased what they’ve learned. A graduation ceremony took place at Plum’s Summerfest at Larry Mills Park Friday June 25.

Trent’s father, Todd Blum, was at the ceremony.

“I’m proud of him,” Blum said. “He put in a lot of time, a lot of effort and had a lot of fun doing it. It’s a wonderful program. I applaud the department for taking the initiative to show these kids really some life-changing skills not only with saving people’s lives (and) helping others, but just developing leadership skills and really developing them as strong members of society.”

Trent was one of 27 cadets in the third annual fire academy. They came from Greensburg, Murrysville, Export, South Hills, Sharpsburg, Plum and other municipalities.

Holiday Park officials introduced the program in 2018 as a way to help recruitment and educate youths.

There were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters across the state in the 1970s. Numbers are down to about 38,000, according to a report released in November 2018 by the state House of Representatives.

The first Plum camp had about a dozen cadets. Its second year had a little more than 20. The academy was canceled last year due to the pandemic.

Cadets earned certifications in CPR, first aid, life flight safety, stop the bleed and fire behavior, which is recognized by the state fire academy. They also received certificates from the Allegheny Fire Academy. Participants were ages 14 to 17.

“Everybody came back,” Holiday Park Fire Chief Jim Sims said of the academy’s start and finish. “Everybody came back on time. Everybody did the skills that we asked them to do. Everybody participated in the things that we asked them to do … Our lesson for this week was, ‘Who Made a Difference. Every day I would ask them, ‘Who made a difference today?’ Their answer always was, ‘I did. I made a difference.’”

Sean Cochrane, 14, of Shaler saw the Plum academy as an opportunity to further his firefighter education and help make a difference.

He took classes at the Allegheny County Fire Academy prior to coming to the borough as a way to follow in father’s footsteps. His dad, Dan Barnhart, is a firefighter and EMT for Bauerstown Volunteer Fire Department.

“I really liked the rapid intervention team,” Sean said. “They extricate firefighters from places they can’t get out of.”

Heather Cochrane said she can tell the Holiday Park experience has impacted her son, Sean.

“They learn so much in a week,” she said. “It was the best $50 ever spent. We traveled 35-45 minutes every day, twice a day, to drop him off. It was so worth it and he always wanted to go back every day. The camp kept him involved.”

The price of admission covers meals, trips and a camp T-shirt.

Sean hopes to return to the Plum academy next year.

“It’s a great opportunity to have fun and learn things while being a great member of your community,” he said.

Holiday Park medical and community outreach officer Alex Marcelewski said that is exactly what camp is about.

“Every year, we take a little bit more and grow a little bit more,” he said. “We mixed up some of the programs, a little more intense with EMS and a little more intense with search and rescue this year. They’ve spent a lot of time learning to get into buildings, search buildings, break down doors and more of the realistic stuff that they would do in the real live academy. We mixed it in and the kids loved it. More hands-on (than previous years).”

Marcelewski said the feedback from campers was positive with many returning participants calling it more challenging.

Most of the firefighters involved in the camp take vacations from work to be there for the cadets. It also takes significant effort to coordinate trips to and visits from partnering agencies.

“It brings our department all together for a whole week for kids,” Marcelewski said. “It’s a great thing. It’s a bonding experience. This is setting up the departments of the future. We’re all going to get older. Now that we see the kids are coming behind us, we want to get them and bring them in (to the fire service). We’re securing the future, and that’s what makes us feel good.”

More information about Holiday Park and its activities is available at

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, or via Twitter .

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Plum junior fire academy graduates 27 cadets from multiple communities