Loften High school students get a head start at firefighting


Loften High School senior Winter Menuey will be one step closer to becoming a firefighter after earning her EMR certification through the school’s fire academy.

“What made me want to join is my dad is a firefighter, so it kind of runs in the family,” Menuey said. “There is no better feeling than helping people.”

Menuey, 17, has spent her four years at Loften developing her physical and academic skills in the academy in hopes of a fire service career. She and other classmates also participate in competitions throughout Florida as they develop leadership and team collaboration skills.

Student participates in training using firefighter gear.
Winter Menuey, a senior at Loften High School, practicing her drills, which include dragging a fire hose from one end of the obstacle course to the other. (Arlett Villalona/WUFT News)

The director of the academy, Mark Smith, the former fire marshal at Alachua County Fire Rescue, guides students through a combination of textbook work and obstacle courses made to simulate techniques that will be useful later in their careers.

“The goal is for everybody to get certified,” Smith said. “And I take comfort in knowing that when they go through my program, they are more prepared to help somebody if a situation arises because I teach it with a perspective from emergency medicine.”

Smith said the program offers the same material taught at an EMT firefighter program at Florida State Fire College or Santa Fe College, but is more informal than a typical high school ROTC.

As many as eight former academy students are working for area fire departments, he said.

Menuey hopes to enroll in the emergency management technician program at Santa Fe College after high school en route to a career as a firefighter or paramedic.

“I feel this program has helped me through the steps to get to that point,” she said.

Firefighter-in-training practices by dragging a dummy.
Menuey uses a dummy that weighs 175 pounds and trains for a real situation where a person may need assistance. (Arlett Villalona/WUFT News)

Noah Boyle, 21, a 2018 Loften graduate, became a paramedic at Century Ambulance Services in Lake City after earning certifications in CPR and basic life support through the academy.

“The school puts you through four years of training, which equates to the Florida fire certification,” he said. “So you actually go through pretty much everything you would in the real world, like getting a call, dressing out in bunker gear, learning basic fire skills and knot-tying.”

Students in the program can also take advantage of learning from someone with experience.

“I try to teach the students here the culture of the profession of being in the fire service or in the emergency medical field,” Smith said. “It’s very unique, and there’s a lot of stress, so I try to teach them how to deal with stress by sharing some of my experiential stories with them.”

Students also build important connections with Smith by participating in active drills and receiving one-on-one feedback on their performance.

Ke’Nyea Graham, 19, who graduated from Loften last year is now an Alachua County Fire Rescue trainee, said the academy helped her to think more highly of herself as a young woman.

“I was challenged with the perception of not being as strong or as fast as a man, and you don’t really see too many girls in this position,” she said. “I feel like this was an obstacle the program helped me mentally defeat, because I realized that women are just as capable of doing the job.”

Boyle also said the program teaches valuable life skills.

“There are a lot of important lessons I picked up on, but my most important one was staying true to myself for what I aspired for, and just making sure I put in the hard work and dedication to achieve my goals,” he said.

Graham said her four years with the academy was great training for a fire department.

Her supervisor, Capt. Karem Scott-Kotb, said her proficiency and involvement in the program made her stand out from other applicants for the same position.

“She had a lot of interaction with the department, which made the transition to Alachua County Fire Rescue really easy, and made her a great asset to our department,” Scott-Kotb said.

Mark Smith closes the lockers that hold the students’ bunker gear after training sessions have been completed. (Arlett Villalona/ WUFT News)

About Arlett Villalona

Arlett is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

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