Teenagers Sean Marelli and Ryan King crawled slowly across the floor of the Tuesday night — boxed in on both sides by folding tables tipped on their sides that created a maze — while fire members watched from above and called out words of encouragement.
"You've gotta use your hands," advised Capt. Mike Patterson to the boys who were weighed down by about 60 lbs. of fire gear and air tanks and had their vision obscured by wadded up paper towels in their masks.
"Stay low," Chief Rich Arlt warned as the boys searched the area for a "victim," which in this case was a large orange pylon.
Marelli and King, both recent graduates of , were taking part in a search-and-rescue drill as part of the Oceanport Hook & Ladder Explorer Program, which gives teens the opportunity to see what it's like to be a firefighter.
"This way if they decide they want to move on to train at the fire academy when they're 18, there are no surprises," said 2nd Asst. Chief Joseph Wolf, who is the adviser for the program, which is open to all teens in the area who've graduated from the eighth grade and are interested in learning more about becoming firefighters.
"It's an opportunity for the fire department to give back to the community," said Wolf. "It lets us share our knowledge about firefighting with teens so they can see if they would like to become firefighters."
About six teenagers — including two girls — participate in the program that meets the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Explorers are introduced to almost all the same drills that they would encounter at the fire academy except for being exposed to live fire. They can remain in the program until they turn 21 or decide to move on to the fire academy.
The Explorer Program also is an opportunity to find and train more volunteers for the Oceanport Fire Department as well as other local companies. "It's tough to get volunteers," said Arlt, because of the stringent fire academy criteria for graduation, which requires 195 hours of training.
The department just reintroduced the Explorer Program after a four-or-five-year hiatus, said Wolf. The last time they ran it, about 10 of the Explorers went on to become firefighters. All but one of the current executive officers at Oceanport Hook & Ladder are former Explorers.
Marelli, who said he signed up because his friends did, said it was important to him to learn how to help people. "I definitely want to make a career out of this," he said while suiting up in his gear.