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Program prepares the next generation of volunteers

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By Molly Haines

Since its inception in the early 1980s, Owen County’s junior volunteer firefighter program has taught teens the importance of camaraderie, trust and building lifelong relationships -- but most importantly, how to save lives and property.
Today there are only four junior firefighters county wide, a number that Owen County Volunteer Fire Chief Robb Chaney, Owenton Fire Chief David Lilly and Owen County Volunteer Fire Public Information Officer Jude Canchola hope to see rise this summer.
Both Chaney and Canchola became junior firefighters when the program first came to Owen County.
“Fighting fires is the most physically demanding thing you can do,” Canchola said. “When you get a little bit older it can start taking its toll. But if we get young volunteers in here they can carry on.”
Alex Gomez, a 15-year-old Owen County High School student, became a junior firefighter for the OCVFD last year and is now the only junior firefighter at the department.  
Encouraged by firefighters in his family, Gomez said he enjoys being a part of the team.
“I get to help with pretty much whatever they do,” Gomez said. “It’s exciting -- it’s being a part of another team and the responsibility of trying to help save people.”
Lilly said the state allows junior firefighters to be in the cold and warm zones at a fire scene, but never in the hot zone.
Junior firefighters also assist with equipment, attend trainings and meetings and have the opportunity at 18 years old to move on to a paid fire department.
Lilly said junior firefighters who have completed 150 hours of training by the time they reach 18 are then eligible to apply for paid departments.
Junior firefighters are also on hand at the Owen County 4-H Fair & Horse Show to assist with watering down the demolition derby track.
The program also offers some first-hand experience and Gomez said going out on runs with the other volunteers is the best part of the experience.
 Alex’s mother, Donna Gomez, said safety can be a concern, but the certified firefighters are always keeping a close eye on the juniors.
“As a parent, you would worry about your child no matter what they’re doing,” Donna Gomez said. “But they make them have this training and they’re always watching them. (Alex) is on the football team, but this is a different kind of team. There’s a camaraderie that they have – it’s a different kind of teamwork.”
Those interested in becoming a junior firefighter can contact the Owenton/Owen County Volunteer Fire Department at 484-2131 or stop by the firehouse, located on South Main Street, on the second or fourth Monday of each month at 7 p.m.
Chaney said those interested do not have to join the Owenton or Owen County VFD, but instead may go to the volunteer fire department closest to their home.
The Jonesville Volunteer Fire Department currently has three junior firefighters.
Other volunteer fire departments in Owen County include Jonesville, Monterey, New Liberty and South Owen.
Those interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter can also call The Kentucky Fire Commission, which has recently set up a phone line to provide information to prospective volunteer firefighters.
The direct line is 1-800-347-3546.