Explorers program facilitator Ray Sayah talks about the importance of readiness in the fire service, as Explorers Tyler Aamold and Mysti Traicoff listen.
Explorers program facilitator Ray Sayah talks about the importance of readiness in the fire service, as Explorers Tyler Aamold and Mysti Traicoff listen.

The Snohomish County Fire District 7 Explorers program is about more than just teaching youth what it takes to be a firefighter — it’s about leadership, competition, hard work and learning how to serve the community.

The Explorers program is a collaborative program created by the Learning for Life Corporation, an affiliate of Boy Scouts of America. The program is aimed at helping boys and girls explore career education by allowing them to gain hands-on, career-specific experience through interactive curriculum. Learning for Life exploring programs encompass five key areas of emphasis, including career opportunities, life skills, character education and leadership experience.

In addition to Explorers programs implemented at different fire departments around Washington, youth can explore a career in law enforcement through Explorers programs in police departments, including the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

In Monroe, Fire Explorers Post No. 315 was established in 1998 by the former fire chief. Today, the program is headed up by firefighter Ray Sayah, with help from District 7 Fire Commissioner Randy Woolery and firefighters Kale Guptill and Michael Collier. 

Youth (age 14-18) from around the Sky Valley are welcome to apply for an Explorer position. The group meets 7-9 p.m. every Thursday during the school year at Monroe’s Fire Station 31, to learn and practice different firefighting skills.

Explorers program curriculum teaches the basics of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and air management, ground ladders, automobile extrication, tool use, forcible entry, CPR and first aid, knots and hoisting, ventilation, fire behavior, extinguishers, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) tactics, team building, search and rescue and bunker gear.

Each Explorer is given their own bunker gear for the duration of the program, and is instructed on the importance of getting dressed as quickly as possible. A firefighter must be able to wake from a sound sleep and get fully geared up in less than 60 seconds, Sayah said.

It is a technique that is practiced often.

“For us, it’s an important drill. I’ve got to get up, run out here and get on the truck with all my gear on, and the truck has to be able to move out the door in a minute,” Sayah said. “That’s so that we can have a standard of coverage that’s consistent with every call.”

In addition to putting on gear for time, Explorers practice attaching fire hoses to hydrants and engage in tactical exercises called combat challenges, which involve both physical skill and mental acuity. Explorers are taught to practice the exact techniques employed by firefighters, some of which may seem counterintuitive at first.

A layperson might imagine firefighters quickly navigating the scene of a fire, also known as the fire ground, to ensure they can get inside the structure as quickly as possible. In reality, firefighters are trained to employ a fast-walk technique to enhance safety and improve their chances of combating the fire successfully. 

Sayah said running in bunker gear while carrying heavy equipment is especially taxing, and a firefighter must always work to conserve energy and limit air consumption. If a firefighter expends their energy running across the fire ground, their temperature elevates quickly, before they’ve even gone inside the structure, he said. 

“Now when I go in, I’m already both out of breath and a little bit worn out, so I’m going to go through my air a little faster,” Sayah said. “But if I can sort of walk when I’m out here, I have a much higher chance of success in actually getting to the objective faster.” 

This is why running is prohibited during the combat challenges, which combine teamwork with a series of different tactical maneuvers, including a low crawl, crawling with an object to simulate the rescue of a baby or small child, fast-walking with a fire hose, swiftly climbing up three flights of stairs, pulling a fire hose up through a window and operating a fire hose with precision — all while dressed in bunker gear.

Explorers must also demonstrate an acute awareness of their teammates, as they pass on tools and work together to combat the fire.

During a recent class, the Explorers were divided into two combat challenge practice teams, battling it out for the fastest time. Every year in May, more than 100 Explorers from around the state get the opportunity to demonstrate their combat challenge skills at an Explorers competition; the Washington Association of Future Firefighters Annual Muster is held at the Washington State Fire Training Academy in North Bend.

“Our team tends to do pretty well at this event,” Sayah said.

Monroe’s Explorers program has a long history of producing successful fire service professionals, said Sayah, which demonstrates the strength of the program.

“We’ve got a good group of former Explorers,” he said. “Another nice thing for us, is that our former explorers are in fire departments all over the state, so we’ll see them every once in a while, and they speak highly of our program.”

For Sultan resident Tyler Aamold, 17, the program has given him the opportunity to gather valuable perspective on a career he is interested in pursuing. Aamold first became interested in the fire service after going on a ride-along with his uncle, who is a firefighter and paramedic in Lake Stevens. He learned about Monroe’s Explorers program through his friend, Conner Berti, also an Explorer, who encouraged him to get involved. He’s been an Explorer for about three months, and said he’s loving every minute of the experience. 

“I found out about this program, and I felt like this would be a good entry into the fire service, to see if I liked it or not,” Aamold said. “So far I’m absolutely loving it. I’m learning so much.”

For 18-year-old Monroe High School student Mysti Traicoff, being an Explorer is giving her a glimpse at the medical profession, as firefighters today are also trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).

In addition to the physical challenges, tactical exercises and leadership training, Explorers are given the chance to serve the community, including at fire department open houses and community events.

“If there is a need for something, we will help out,” Sayah said. “So we’ve gone to different events and provided staffing and assistance.”

Sayah recently tasked Aamold and Berti with chores at the home of Ed Faulds, a longtime Snohomish County Fire District 7 volunteer.

Aamold said he spent the day cleaning out gutters, and enjoyed the opportunity to meet Faulds and learn about his contributions to the department. Aamold is no stranger to community service, frequently volunteering at events in Sultan, including the Veterans Day Ceremony and events hosted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post No. 2554.   

In addition to serving his community frequently, Aamold is a championship-level golfer with the Sultan High School golf team. He said he’s enjoying the challenging physical aspects of the Explorers program.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Aamold said. “It’s a little bit different than golf.”

Snohomish County Fire District 7 is always accepting applicants into its Explorers program. For information on how to apply, email hchadwick@snofire7.org.