Berlin firefighters rally to keep firefighting class in high school

BERLIN -- Dozens of Berlin firefighters came out to Monday night's Berlin Board of Education meeting to support a high school firefighting class in danger of not running because of low enrollment.

The school's tech classes -- woodshop, automotive and firefighting -- are not scheduled to run next year because of single-digit enrollment.

"Going through that class was a life-changer for sure," said Sonny Vanbuskirk, a Berlin firefighter who took the firefighting class while a student at Berlin High School.

"The class has been there for 12 years," said James Simons, Berlin's Fire Administrator. "The class has produced 28 firefighters."

"It's a big impact to the Town of Berlin," said Lt. James Wall of the Kensington Fire Department, who also took the class. "That's your first responders. That's who you're calling when you're having one of the worst days of your life."

Superintendent Brian Benigni was sympathetic to the firefighters' concerns. "Believe me, I understand what it means to the community," said Benigni. "I understand what it means to all of you, and there's a definite need for the course."

Benigni said he's happy to run the course if enough students sign up. "We're not losing the course," said Benigni. "The course is still valid. We're not able to run it with the numbers that we've run in the past."

But past graduates say students are not encouraged to take tech classes like they should be.

"Hands on classes, you've got to have them in the school system," said Vanbuskirk. "Not everyone's made for college."

For some, the firefighting class wasn't just about saving other lives, but also about changing theirs. "I had no clue what I was going to do before this class happened," said Vanbuskirk.

"Nothing pushed me ever toward the fire service and, without this class, I would not be standing here today," said Lt. Tyler St. Jarre of the South Kensington Fire Department.