If a 14-year-old enters a junior firefighter program and spends a couple years just emptying the station's garbage cans and sweeping out the truck bays, what are the odds they'll want to continue serving at age 18?

Prompted by concerns from volunteer fire departments, a state lawmaker is pushing for clearer language detailing what a junior firefighter can and cannot do.

According to Assemblyman Parker Space, R-Sussex, support is growing for his legislation that solidifies the non-hazardous duties junior firefighters may perform during training and at the scene of a fire.

"They want hands-on, they want to learn the techniques from senior firefighters to advance themselves," said Space, a former fire chief. "You've got to keep the kids engaged on the firefighting aspect. If they're not, they're not going to join."

The bill notes any member under the age of 16, while prohibited from participating in training that involves actual fire or smoke, can ride as a passenger in an emergency vehicle; train while under supervision on the use of certain tools; deploy and repack hoses at a fire scene; and deliver tools from a fire apparatus as ordered by the chain of command.

Junior Firefighter's Auxiliary members who are at least 16 years old can also use warning flares at a fire scene, operate a medical suction unit, and train with certain power tools, under the bill.

Under current law, the bill notes, a municipality or fire officials may establish rules and regulations to govern the activities of junior members.

Space said the ambiguity would lead insurance companies to shy away from covering junior members.

“As the current law is being interpreted, many junior firefighters are being relegated to just attending meetings and observing emergency scenes," said Sussex County Fire Marshal Virgil Rome in a news release. "The lack of activity would start to discourage our youth from becoming junior firefighters at the detriment of our volunteer firefighters.”

With volunteerism "dwindling away," Morris Plains Fire Chief Kevin Rongo said junior members are a huge asset on and away from the scene. Among their tasks within the department, junior firefighters can handle accountability — keeping track of firefighters' locations on the scene.

Rongo said he's in favor of the state setting a "minimum standard" for duties, but he believes local jurisdictions should be allowed to expand or subtract from it.

"I'm not a big fan of a lot of restrictions," he said. "There should be guidelines, yes — like a boiler plate type of document."

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