ARLINGTON -- The firefighters probably didn't notice the little girl's gaze as they battled fires in her neighborhood over the years.
"I would watch what they would do," said Melissa Howard, now a junior at Bowie High School. "I thought it was neat how they all worked together and how they all counted on each other to get the people out of the house and save as much property as they could.
"I always wanted to be one, to save someone's life someday."
Howard is getting a head start on that dream as one of 23 students in the Arlington school district's new High School Fire Academy, a two-year program aimed at turning out ready-to-hire graduates certified as firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
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The academy, the first of its kind in the Metroplex, will host an inauguration ceremony today at the Arlington Fire Training Center, 5501 Ron McAndrew Drive, to get the students and their families acquainted.
Steve Keller, coordinator of Tarrant County College's fire training center in Fort Worth, said the students need to get to know one another as soon as possible.
"It's a good way to have them start the bonding process," Keller said. "Going through this is going to be challenging academically and physically. They're going to have to rely on each other to get through the program."
The academy, at Sam Houston High School, is a joint venture of the school district, TCC and the Arlington Fire Department. The district will fund the program, mostly with state money. The Fire Department will provide some of the gear and its training center for hands-on experience. TCC will contribute its training center and, using tuition paid by the school district, it has hired and trained Arlington firefighters to teach the courses during their off time.
Officials said graduates will have the basic certification to go directly to work at many fire departments. They also will earn up to 24 hours of college credit that can be transferred to TCC, which offers an associate degree in fire professions.
Getting selected was not easy. Candidates had to write an essay, obtain recommendations and pass a college-entrance test.
"It was a lot bigger than I expected it to be," said Blake Cretsinger, a Martin High School junior who was accepted. "But it will be worth it."