Helena Magazine

Guardians of tomorrow: Helena’s Explorer programs serve as the training ground for Helena’s future heroes

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2023

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Written by Donald Mottern

Photos by Jeremy Raines and Contributed

In the city of Helena, the commitment to community safety and service is a quintessential element in the fabric of the community. Thanks to the efforts of some of Helena’s current police and firefighters, young individuals that are eager to make a positive impact have a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in those essential services through the two department’s Explorer programs.  These initiatives not only provide invaluable experiences and vocational insight, but they also foster personal growth, community engagement and serve to mold the future guardians of Helena.

These programs have a long history both in Helena, and the nation as a whole. Explorer programs are designed as interactive career education programs that put participants at the worksite of the career represented. In that vein, participants, as their titles represent, explore the career fields in question and learn what the careers entail, learning all they can along the way.

On the whole, the Exploring programs are organized under Learning for Life, which is an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America. That being said, posts are open to both men and women who have reached the age and grade levels required.

“You have to be at least 14 and then, at age 21, the explorer ages out (of the program).” said Sgt. Adam Sample, the head advisor for Post 790.  “Between the ages of 14 and 21, they are welcome and encouraged to show up every day that they meet.”

For the city of Helena, students and others in the age range have the opportunity to partake in the Helena Police Department’s Explorer Post 790 and the Helena Fire Department’s Explorer Post 2060. Police explorers meet each Monday while fire explorers meet every Thursday.

Wes Channell, who currently serves as the interim captain of the Helena Fire and Rescue Department’s Explorer Post until a full appointment is made, is one of many who can cite their involvement in the Explorers as a root cause of their lasting participation in the field. In September, he started recruit school with Birmingham Fire and Rescue. Although his involvement with the Helena Fire Explorer Post will be limited by this, he still plans to take part in every opportunity that presents itself.

“I initially joined the program (during) my 7th grade year at Helena Middle School but had to take a short hiatus until my eleventh-grade year,” Channell said. “(I) have been a part of the program (and the Helena Fire Department) ever since.”

In fact, the two programs in Helena have generated a long line of first responders and officers that have aged out of the programs and gone on to serve Helena and the surrounding areas.

“As long as we’ve been around, you would be hard pressed to find any police department in Shelby County that doesn’t have a former explorer working for them,” Sample said. “I know we’ve got people that came through our post in our current leadership areas here, in our administrative staff, in our supervisors and at other cities. I know we’ve aged out a couple here recently that have gone into the military. We’ve had so many come through our post that went on to law enforcement in Shelby County.”

Another of Helena’s firefighters, Matthew Mayfield, currently serves as an advisor to Explorer Post 2060. Mayfield, who also serves as a firefighter and hazmat technician with the Birmingham Fire Department in addition to his roles in Helena, started his career following the training and preparation he received during his participation in the Helena Fire Explorers. In March 2016, while still in the program, he was recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Children and Disasters Newsletter for his work promoting fire safety. Mayfield is but one example of the many success stories to have come from the two programs.

For those interested, the posts operate under an ongoing basis organized into weekly meetings, meaning that the programs are not carried out in the traditional class or curriculum model. The Explorer posts are instead designed as ongoing experiences that can be joined at any time. In the same spirit, participants, while they are strongly encouraged to do so, are not required to attend every meeting.

“It’s one of those things where we understand that a lot of the kids have things going on like band, football, and even jobs because we do have 19 and 20 year olds,” Sample said. “But it is one of those things that the more you put into it the more you’ll get out of it.”

Both posts seek to ensure that the experience is one that balances community interaction and outreach with on-hand and involved exposure to activities found in the lines of work being represented.

“We provide hands-on training and set up scenarios pertaining to the situation we are training on,” Channell said. “We are involved in many public events such as the buck creek festival and old town live. We also work football games to allow the explorers to interact with the community.

In addition to these trainings, which in the past have included mock wildland fire exercises, trauma life support techniques and EMS procedures, fire explorers also take an annual trip to the Alabama Fire College that allows them to experience what their recruit school will be like should they decide to pursue fire and rescue as a career. While, of course, not being the same trainings and experiences, Post 790 also offers similar avenues and exposure to the fieldwork seen in law enforcement.

“During our meetings, what we’ll do is have a topic of instruction,” Sample said. “Those topics usually start with more of a classroom feel and lecture and then it leads on into hands on stuff. It ranges from everything, we’ll teach the kids about working a wreck, or collecting evidence at a crime scene, courtroom testimony, what to do in case of a bomb threat and how to pull over a car. There is all types of things and scenarios that we go over with them teaching them how to handle.”

Both posts also involve themselves in state and national level competitions where they are pitted alongside other fire and law enforcement posts from other areas and municipalities. Such competitions commonly take these learning scenarios and involve participants displaying their retained knowledge of correct procedure and providing an able-bodied effort.

Although these programs have a surface level intent of placing their respective careers on full display for those interested in pursuing them, the secondary aspects of the Explorer posts are also equally as important. It is important to note that the posts are not merely ride-along programs, but that they also serve to construct bonds, friendships and understandings that will serve the participants throughout all aspects of their lives.

“I feel the program is a great thing for young people looking to find a place of belonging,” Channell said. “Middle and high school are rough times for many people and this program gives you the opportunity to be around some great people, (and to) learn and prepare yourself for the future.”

Per their guiding principles, both posts aim to educate participants on five major emphases which include developing knowledge on career opportunities in the field pertaining to the post, developing life skills, teaching the importance of citizenship, developing the character and ethics of each participant and the provision of valuable leadership experience to those in the programs.

“A lot of times, I think, people miss the idea, (They think) that because it’s a law enforcement post that it is just geared for people that are going into law enforcement, or who want to be a police officer, or are going into the military,” Sample said. “We’ve got a lot of kids right now that will never see those career fields, but are still meeting people, learning new things, making connections and having friends. A lot of them do go on to careers in law enforcement or the military, but a lot of them don’t and we say that’s okay. As long as you take something that we can give you and you’re better for that.”

Sample and Channell both emphasized their posts’ responsibilities of instilling kids with life lessons regardless of where they go or what they ultimately decide to do for a living. For Sgt. Sample especially, it is an aspect of the program that he finds truly rewarding.

“Building relationships with the kids, especially when they first start, and seeing them blossom and doing things, after some time in the program, that they never, in a million years, thought they would have been able to do when they first started—being able to see them grow with the program—is one of my favorite parts.”

From that perspective, it is clear that Helena’s Explorer Post 790 and 2060 are not only educating interested students about noble career paths, but that they are also crafting the guardians of tomorrow, whether they choose to wear a uniform or not.

“The main goal for our program is not just to prepare people for the fire service but to prepare people for life and I think I would definitely like to see that trend continue once I am long gone,” Channell said.

Those seeking to learn more about the Exploring programs as a whole can find a wealth of information at Exploring.org.

Those interested in the Helena Police Department’s Explorer Post 790 are encouraged to contact Sgt. Adam Sample at asample@cityofhelena.org.

Those interested in the Helena Fire Department’s Explorer Post 2060 can reach out by email at helenafireexplorers61@gmail.com