The Soboba Fire Explorer Program was launched in March after the Tribal Council indicated a desire for the fire department to provide opportunities to Tribal youth and approved the resources needed to start and support it.
“Enrollment for the program has exceeded our initial expectations and I am pleased to see the program moving forward,” Soboba Fire Chief Glenn Patterson said. “The curriculum we use provides the members with basic firefighting skills along with life skills needed to be successful in any career field.”
Fire Training Captain Howard Maxcy Jr. oversees the program that is open to youths and young adults ages 15 to 21. Maxcy helped with an explorer program at another station he worked at prior to joining Soboba Fire.
“They train with the on-duty crew as well as learn about firefighters’ life at the station with cooking, cleaning, studying and many other things,” he said. “During every meeting they engage with the on-duty crew. This gives them exposure to different mentors who have specific skills and experiences that they can share with the explorers.”
The group meets every Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Soboba Fire Station on the Soboba Indian Reservation where they go through various drills and exercises while learning why each one is important and when it is used during an actual fire call. At this phase, all training is being done at the station itself.
“They like the challenge and are very eager to learn more and more every week,” Maxcy said. “And there are a few who expressed they want to become firefighters.”
He said that learning basic skills in the Explorer program such as ropes and knots, SCBA, hose pulls and ladders are just a few common skills they will encounter at the Fire Academy, should they choose to formally continue their studies.
Soboba Tribal members are given a priority for acceptance into the program, but any Tribal member is eligible. Currently, Kuamai Banks, 17, is commuting from Pala and Barona where he lives. While the trip can be difficult at times when traffic is heavy, he said he likes the program and the opportunities it provides.
“His dad and I were in the fire academy together,” Maxcy said. “I’ve known Kuamai since he was little.”
Jeremiah Ramos, 18, joined the program when it began and it has helped him to decide to pursue a career in firefighting.
Abigail Arres entered the Explorers with some prior knowledge as she had participated in the WE LEAD summer youth work program in 2021 through TANF.
“I already knew I wanted to go into the fire service, but this program has been even better than my expectations; I have been able to learn so much,” she said.
Daniel Valdez Jr. is one of the youngest Explorers at 15 and is using his involvement as an exploration of the industry.
“I want to go to college first and then see about going into the fire academy,” he said.
Levi Herrera is the most recent recruit. His father, Capt. Gabe Herrera, has been in fire service for the past 26 years and worked closely with Randy Sandoval and Howard Maxcy Sr. to get the Soboba Reservation Fire Department established as an all-risk emergency response organization in 2014.
Maxcy Jr. is joined by other crew members in teaching specific skills and drills to the young men and women. What they learn is also critical to receiving certifications that will assist them as they move forward.
“This department is renowned for its very experienced firefighters, some with 20-plus years of experience,” Firefighter Thomas Ibarra said. “The Explorers get to learn from these individuals and learn how to be good partners and serve the people, which is the most important thing.”
He added that Soboba Fire is fortunate to have equipment that other stations do not have which allows the participants to learn about some state-of-the-art apparatus.
“Any explorer program is beneficial but this one here really sets them up for success,” Ibarra said.
Maxcy said there are many cultural aspects that are important to know when working with a Tribal fire department. “For myself, being from a reservation, I am able to understand how the reservation works and how the cultural side works. All our crew members have a great work ethic and are very community oriented. And Chief Patterson is big on investing in these young people’s futures.”
“We do training drills in different areas that reinforce all standards here for Soboba so they can interact with all crews as they rotate through each drill station,” he said. “All firefighters can work any shift so everything should be turnkey and seamless at all times.”
Each Explorer is issued equipment for training which starts upon arrival to the weekly session. They are taught the system of always being ready to go. Even fitness workouts are geared to increasing stamina and strengthening muscles that will help in the execution of regular actions on the job.
It is evident that the young participants are getting more out of the program than just being taught how a firefighter works in the field and lives while at the station. Along with learning to respect everyone and take pride in all the equipment and each other, they are experiencing important life skills such as teamwork, responsibility, strong communication and problem-solving skills.
The Soboba Fire Explorer Program offers teachers that work alongside the young men and women and don’t lecture them inside a classroom but rather mentor them through each lesson and drill so they get firsthand experience. They have someone by their side that is willing to explain every movement and answer any questions they may have. It is an excellent preparation for those that may enroll at a fire academy, but it is also great for any path they choose to take as the skills they learn can be applied to many different work/life situations.
Photos courtesy of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians