Haverlah, a small village in Germany, has a population of 1,200. Its volunteer fire department generally receives 20 calls per year for assistance, said Marcel Kamphenkel, a firefighter and junior adviser for the department. But the village boasts 33 junior firefighters, the largest force in northwestern Germany.
Although the techniques and equipment used in Germany to fight fires are in some ways different from those in the U.S., the objectives of the junior programs in both countries are the same: to introduce teenagers to firefighting and encourage them to join when they’re old enough to be eligible.
When a German junior, Finn Klapproth, 17, visited Nassau County in late December, he had an opportunity to participate in a series of training drills with East Norwich Fire Department juniors.
In one drill, Klapproth tried what American firefighters refer to as a “bailout,” using the rope and hook in the bailout system on his American firefighter’s uniform to make his way to safety. He also learned how to use a rescue chair, which is used by firefighters during evacuations.
“These guys want to get their hands on everything,” said Jerry Presta, of East Norwich, board chairman of the Nassau County Junior Firefighters Association and the director of the junior program in the East Norwich department. Presta said he initially hesitated when he received word from Kamphenkel that he, five other German junior advisers and Klapproth wanted to come to Nassau County in the winter. “I told them it’s a rough time — it’s cold,” he said. “They said, it’s cold in Germany too.”
The purpose of the December visit was to discuss the logistics of an international exchange program that was decided on last year for German and Nassau County juniors. Between eight and 10 German juniors will attend the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage in July. Then, in the summer of 2020, a group of Nassau County juniors and advisers will train in Germany.
The idea was first considered four years ago, when Kevin Quinn, of Boston, a chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council, attended a fire expo in Hanover, Germany. He met some of the country’s firefighters, including Kamphenkel, who discussed coming to the U.S. The German firefighters had completed the Haverlah junior program and stayed on with their fire department to be junior advisers. They said they wanted to visit the U.S. — and especially Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. — to learn about junior programs here.
Quinn contacted Steven Kline, an ex-chief of the Oceanside Fire Department, who is also the first vice president of the Fire Association of the State of New York, and Presta, to arrange for a visit to Long Island, which was chosen because of the strong junior program in Nassau County.
Kamphenkel and two other German firefighters visited in May 2018, spending six days on Long Island. They paved the way, with Presta and others, for an international exchange program for junior firefighters.
“These guys are great, and having them here is mutually beneficial for us,” said Craig Bezmen, chief of the East Norwich department. “They have ideas and different ways to do things.”
Kamphenkel said he was impressed with the ENFD’s equipment. The fire engine he uses in Germany is small, he said, the same size as an ENFD ambulance.
“One of the biggest differences, I think, is we have a high priority for general youth work training,” Kamphenkel said. “We have fun in the fire station, making pumpkins at Halloween, and do a lot of stuff that isn’t part of the fire service. We go to the park and swim — create a lot of fun for the kids.”
The youth work training program is government sponsored, and Kamphenkel said there are many rules. Juniors can join when they are between 10 and 18. And 50 percent of them are girls. When they turn 16, they can move up into the Alarm Group and become active firefighters.
The best experience he had, Klapproth said, was climbing aboard a fire truck. “I asked how often they have a call, and that minute the alarm went off,” he recounted. “When the call came, the firefighters were relaxed. In Germany it’s not like that, probably because we don’t have many calls.”
It was Klapproth’s first time in America. He said that Americans were polite, and proud of what they do, and added that he wished he could stay longer.
Kamphenkel predicted that Klapproth, who has been a junior since he was 10, will become a firefighter, describing him as motivated and mature.
Klapproth said that becoming a firefighter is his dream. “Not many people want to do this in Germany,” he said. “What’s cool is, as a firefighter, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, you help people and save lives.”
He said he was hoping to come back this summer to experience the fire camp, but said he wasn’t sure he could, because that’s when he works at a farm.
Kamphenkel said he was impressed with Nassau County’s juniors program, and is looking forward to their visit to Germany in 2020. “The kids will see a lot of new things here,” he said. “In Germany, most of the hydrants are in our car. There are supply lines we hook up to there. We will learn a lot from the Americans, and they can learn from us.”