The firefighter prepared to enter the burning, smoke-filled building. Another member of the crew was down and had to be rescued. Wearing a 40-pound air pack plus about 20 pounds of personal protection equipment, he located the hose running from the fire truck into the building and opened the front door.

On hands and knees, he felt for the hose, using it to guide him toward the downed man. The smoke was so thick he couldn't see, and the heavy gloves protecting his hands dulled his sense of touch. The hose was his lifeline, his only certainty of reaching his goal without getting lost. It was hot inside the heavy gear, and his slow progress, combined with the urgency of rescuing the downed firefighter, raised his anxiety.

Finally, he reached another door. Opening it, he found the other firefighter — he was OK. They hugged each other with relief.

Removing his helmet and face mask, Tyler Hills pulled off the hood he was wearing over his face to simulate the blindness caused by smoke. Hills, who lives in Frankfort, is a junior at Searsport District High School and a student in the fire science program at Waldo County Technical Center (WCTC). On a recent morning, he and his two classmates practiced search and rescue.

Teacher Holly Scribner stressed that learning by doing — and doing things over and over — is critical to help students avoid panicking in the field. She said when new fire science students are first starting out, "they can handle about 10 minutes" of doing an exercise dressed in full fire-fighting gear, so they have to gradually build up their strength by slowly increasing the drill time.

Hills agreed, calling the search and rescue exercise "exhausting," and "quite a workout." He added that following the hose blindfolded while searching for the classmate who was playing the downed firefighter was, "kinda scary, because if you go the wrong way, you could possibly die." During the exercise, Hills sometimes became confused because the hose was tangled or looped back on itself, and Scribner would remind him to work from one coupling to the next: female couplings always point toward the fire truck, male toward the nozzle.

The fire science program at WCTC is in its fifth year, said Scribner, who helped develop the program and has taught it from the beginning. She also started the school's emergency medical services (EMS) program, now in its seventh year. Away from the classroom, she works in both fields, being a paramedic on the Cushing rescue squad, as well as that town's fire captain.

Scribner said she comes from a family of teachers, so the opportunity to develop and teach public safety courses at WCTC was "kind of like the dream job." She said this is an atypical year for the fire science program with only three students, where it usually has eight to 10. EMS, which typically has five to 12 students, has six this year.

EMS is a one-year program that alternates with the CNA program, while fire science is a two-year program, Scribner said. She added that EMS typically attracts more girls, and fire science more boys, but she has had girls in fire science. In fact, girls "are some of my best students" in fire science, she said, because they tend to be "a little more determined."

Students in both EMS and fire science graduate with a foot on the first rung of their professional ladder. Fire science students take the exam for their Firefighter I and II certificate, while EMS students get their EMT-Basic certificate. Scribner said getting these credentials in high school saves students the expense of taking the exams later on, as well as allowing them to move up in their profession.

Most fire science students already belong to a local volunteer fire department, she said; those who don't are encouraged to join one to gain field experience. Waldo County "has a great commitment to junior fire fighters," she said, adding that the small volunteer departments are "very welcoming" of women. In addition, she said, Brooks has a good junior EMS program.

Both classes study first aid, CPR and workplace safety, Scribner said. And both have a blend of classroom study and practical applications. EMS students study anatomy and physiology, incident management, how to handle a medical emergency and public health. Fire science students learn about fire behavior, how to use various kinds of fire-fighting equipment, how to size up a fire scene, fire service communications and other field applications. They also get exposed to areas like arson investigation and fire prevention that don't require the same physical stamina as fire-fighting, Scribner said.

EMS students earn five and a half college credits through a partnership with Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, and starting next year the fire science program will have a pilot dual enrollment with Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, Scribner said.

The fire science students interviewed for this story all said they had gotten interested in the field because they knew people who were in it. Junior Joe Lanpher of Searsport said he has friends who are firefighters.

Matt Stone, of Frankfort, also a junior, said his father, grandfather and brother are all firefighters. He belongs to the West Frankfort Volunteer Fire Department. He goes to as many calls as he can, and helps by changing air packs, hooks up hoses to the fire trucks and does traffic control. He said he would rather work for a volunteer department than a paid one, "because you're helping out the community."

Hills said it was his friend and classmate Stone who talked him into taking the class. He's glad he did: "I like being part of a team and being able to do something physical."