Alyssa Sutton

Carson has been the squad boss of a firefighting unit for three years. He started when he was 18. His squad? Part of the RiverBend Youth Transition Facility firefighting crew.

“I had to grow up really fast that year,” Carson said. “(I didn’t) really have a job before that. Being a (squad boss) taught me a lot.”

That’s the goal of the facility, according to RiverBend Camp Director Troy Fuller. He said they work to provide the young men who stay at the facility with the tools to succeed in the workforce.

“This isn’t really rehabilitation,” he said. “This is ‘habilitation.’ A lot of these guys weren’t given the tools to be successful before. We’re giving (these young men) those tools and opportunities to grow.”

The firefighting crew has the ability to do just that.

Carson is a Type 1 firefighter. He assists with resource training-- such as deploying shelters-- and volunteer work.

“I think my favorite thing is how much respect you get for the work you do,” he said. “When you’re
(doing the work) you don’t realize the impact you have on people.”

Carson told the story of a time when he was helping dig a line around someone’s house to protect it from a fire.

“The guy kept coming out all eight days (we were out there) and kept telling us how thankful he was and how much he appreciated it,” Carson said. “At the time I thought, ‘I just dug a line,’ but it was great to know that we were appreciated.”

Brett Dunten, RiverBend’s fire instructor and crew boss, trains the young men, who complete an 80- or 90-hour training, undergo testing and earn their certifications as either Type 1 or Type 2 firefighters.

He said the skills the young men are gaining will come in handy later in their lives.

“They’re learning respect and responsibility,” Dunten said. “And they’re building a good rapport for themselves here.”

Taysean, who is in his first year of the program, said that firefighting is the closest thing he’s had to a “real” job.

“You have to work as a team,” he said of learning responsibility. “It’s fun when a job is done the right way. If we mess up we have to redo it.”

T aysean, along with Ogugua and Justin, who are also working fire for the first time, recently went through training where they learned how to deploy fire shelters, dig lines and use hoses, among a number of other skills.

They also had to complete a three-mile walk in less than 45 minutes carrying 45 pounds –– which, Dunten said, is a national standard for wildland firefighters.

Ogugua, who said he enjoys the hikes and the conditioning that working on a fire crew brings, finished a fire training drill that required running hoses and ending in a fire shelter in 2 minutes, 8
seconds –– the quickest in the group.

Dunten said that the average time for the group ranged between 2:35 and three minutes.

“It’s a good trade. It’s fun and it’s good money,” Ogugua said. “I look forward to getting a job (as a wildland firefighter).”

A ll four young men plan to pursue wildland firefighting after leaving RiverBend.

“It’s my chosen career,” Carson said. “I’ll do it as long as I can.”

Carson has two different contractors hoping to hire him in the future.

“I’ve made a lot of good relationships with people, and I’ve been here long enough that they know I’m a good worker,” Carson said.

Dunten echoed the squad boss’ sentiment.

A lot of (guys) get jobs (as firefighters),” he said. “They’re taken seriously.”

Taysean noted that when the youth from RiverBend work with other crews they are treated just like everyone else.

I didn’t think they knew (where we were from),” he said. “I enjoy working with them.”

Dunten said that the RiverBend fire crew is available to fight fires across four counties.

“We have two engines,” he said, “but if they don’t need water we turn into a hand crew.”

Though the manual labor can be dangerous, Carson said it’s worth it.

“I’ve watched it change lives for the better,” he said.