Six students rushed across Concord High School's parking lot last week, dragging a fire hose behind them and then frantically releasing the valve to create a powerful stream of water pumped from a nearby fire hydrant.
There was no fire in sight, but if they ever encounter one, they'll be ready.
"They can't get enough of this," Chief David Barlow said as he watched and shouted tips to students until they were able to use the water to knock over an orange traffic cone placed several yards away. "There you go!"
Concord High School's Fire Academy, a program that teaches students firefighting skills, is one of only three similar programs in the state.
Students learn about safety, necessary protective equipment, ventilation, forcible entry into burning structures and more.
E.E. Smith High School in Cumberland County and Dixon High School in Onslow County are the only other schools in the state with a fire academy. A joint effort between the N.C. Office of the State Fire Marshall and the state's public schools, the program at Concord High School has found local support from the Concord Department of Fire & Life Safety, which has loaned the program equipment and sent firefighters to work with students.
The program began last year with about 20 students. A teacher was hired to teach a public safety course, and local firefighters from the Concord fire department rotated in and out of the classroom, taking turns teaching students basic firefighting techniques, until Barlow took over the classes in January as the program's chief.
Barlow, a retired high school science teacher, has spent 32 years in the fire service and 20 years teaching firefighter recruits.
Community colleges offer firefighting courses that allow participants to earn the certification necessary to become a firefighter by completing classroom work and participating in hands-on demonstrations.
Because of safety and liability issues, students in Concord High School's Fire Academy can't participate in many of the hands-on lessons required for certification. But after students turn 18, Barlow and local firefighters will hold a week-long workshop to teach them those skills so that they can earn their certification.
In addition to helmets and suits loaned to the program by the Concord fire department, the department has also offered a 1973 firetruck no longer being used.
Students in last year's class practiced using hoses, watched a live burn with local firefighters and took a field trip to Concord Mills Mall to learn about the mall's complex fire alarm system.
Sophomore Luke Barnhardt took the school's public safety course last year and is now in Barlow's fire prevention and education class. His dad is a Concord firefighter, and Luke uses a set of his dad's spare equipment in class.
"I've wanted to be a fireman all my life," he said.
Luke and other students practiced drills last week and competed against one another in a race to time how long it took them to don their turnout gear, the protective clothing worn in fires.
Students scurried to step into their boots, zip their jackets and pull on their helmets and gloves.
"The faster you hurry, the more screw-ups you make," Barlow called out as he timed them.
Junior Shannon Arthur pulled on her gloves and threw up her hands to signal her finish. She dressed in 57 seconds. State regulation requires that firefighters be able to put on their gear in one minute or less.
Shannon's father and brother have been involved in firefighting, and she works at the Coldwater Volunteer Fire Department in eastern Cabarrus County.
"It's a family thing," she said.
Ray Allen, Concord fire department's deputy chief of operations, said he hopes the Fire Academy will help filter students from the high school into the department, which has recently seen a change in its applicant pool. The department has been hiring more out-of-state applicants because they've been scoring higher than locals on an aptitude test used in the hiring process. Because Concord doesn't have a volunteer fire department, Allen said, the high school program will give students exposure to firefighting.
"We're hoping to spark an interest in students," he said.
Concord High School Principal Carla Black said the school had searched for a way to connect students to the community. Other schools have horticulture, masonry or ROTC programs. Concord High School has the Fire Academy, she said.
"It's a sense of identity for students," Black said. "It's an honorable profession. I feel like they're getting so much more than curriculum."