How a Father-Son Duo Helped Build MCCTC’s Firefighter Program
by Dom Fonce
October 16, 2023
In honor of National Fire Prevention Week, Mahoning County Career and Technical Center’s Adult Career Center is celebrating the history of the firefighting program at MCCTC. Specifically, we are highlighting the life and careers of Andy Frost Jr. and Andy Frost III, who are former and current fire chiefs of Austintown Fire Department, Andy Jr.’s role in starting the programs at MCCTC, and how Andy III has carried the torch from his father to grow the programs. In addition to being the fire chief in Austintown, Andy III is the Public Safety Administrator for MCCTC’s Adult Career Center. The father-son duo’s story is one of family, improvement in education, and a drive for community service.
After working at General Motors for 17 years, Andy Jr. began as a volunteer firefighter in 1966. He became a full-time firefighter in 1980 and the Austintown fire chief in 1985. From as young as three, Andy III drove in fire Jeeps with his father and his father’s coworkers. Andy III went to college at the University of Mount Union, but quickly discovered that his major didn’t interest him. Andy III started as a firefighter student at MCCTC in 1985, was hired part-time in Austintown in 1986, and became full-time in 1992. He took over from his father as fire chief in 2012. Andy III says about his father, “I followed in his footsteps the whole way.” Andy Jr. quickly cuts in and says, “But only better.”
When Andy Jr. started in 1966, he only had 36 hours of training in the basement of the fire station, and the exam ethics were questionable. He had to take a 240-hour course, and an exam, to become a full-time firefighter. At the time, he also witnessed a baptism-by-fire workplace culture for new emergency workers, especially when it came to viewing traumatic injuries and deadly scenes. He knew that “this wasn’t the right way to do things.” When he became chief in 1985, he was driven to create better training standards. At the time, firefighters would stay at the training level needed to pass their exams and wouldn’t strive to learn new things after being on the job. Eventually, the state of Ohio created Firefighter I & II courses to raise the training standards for both incoming and current firefighters.
Quickly after Andy Jr. became the Austintown fire chief in 1985, he and the other 21 fire chiefs in Mahoning County came together with the goal to create a better training program and centralized hub to organize it. The fire chiefs chose Mahoning County Career and Technical Center. In MCCTC, the fire chiefs, who formed the Mahoning County Fire Chiefs Association, had a space to conduct fair exams, gather equipment and supplies, and properly train students. Andy Jr. says, “At first, we had no funding. We called local departments looking for old supplies. We started calling MCCTC ‘the dumping grounds.’” Over time, local departments eventually donated a firetruck and an ambulance to MCCTC, which raised the quality of the training substantially. Andy Jr. says the funding turned the corner after the high school began teaching firefighting in 2014. Both Andy Jr. and Andy III give massive praise to Superintendent John Zehentbauer, Adult Career Center Supervisor Mary Mihalopoulos, and MCCTC’s Governing Board for helping find funding to expand their programs. The pair also give praise to the dedicated firefighters from across Mahoning Valley. They are at the core of the firefighter program’s success, and its success is only made possible through their expertise.
Throughout the decades, the program has adapted to a number of new safety regulations which NFPA governs. Early on, the program would train students off-site at one of the local stations. At points, fire training was done in actual houses, but was stopped by MCCTC due to cost. Then they moved to large containers and later moved to state-of-the-art towers and buildings. Some of the training students experience in MCCTC firefighter courses include: confined spaces training, driving training, HAZMAT training, search and rescue training, hose deployment, water movement, breaching, mock car crashes, and operating the Jaws of Life. “We want to train students in every possible situation, while also prioritizing safety,” says Andy III. “We prefer hands-on training because that’s where students will get their truest experience and get them in a fire station, ready to work.” Currently, Andy III is emphasizing protocols to handle EV fires—The problem is twofold: the household charging stations can set on fire, but when the cars themselves catch fire, putting it out can be extremely difficult. Andy III says the cars continue to burn, even when thousands of gallons of water are sprayed onto it.
Andy Jr. says of his first experience going into a fire, “I was scared to death.” He recalls being put on the hose, walking up the steps, going through the bedrooms, stopping the fire, and coming back out in the blink of an eye. He says, “I remember being really proud of myself.” Andy III’s first experience entering a live fire was a bit different from his father’s. He says, “I actually got burned on my ears during my first fire, but it was okay. It’s definitely intimidating. You’re nervous and excited. I must’ve done a good job because I was hooked.” Both men say saving people is the most gratifying aspect of their jobs. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. It helps you get through the difficult times,” says Andy III. “I hold onto the ‘wins’ when days get tough.” He and his department still get gifts and Christmas cards from the people they have saved. Andy Jr. jumps in to praise his son. He says, “Andy [III] has delivered many babies too.” Andy III smiles at his father’s appreciation for his good work, but, ultimately, his face shows humility, that serving the community is simply what his job requires.
Throughout our interview, both men recount dozens of former firefighters and chiefs by name, oftentimes remembering specific stories about these men, when they died, when they got promotions, etcetera. Andy III says, “Firefighting is family. You’d do anything for your fellow firefighter. You’d risk your life to save theirs.” He says all his best friends are his coworkers. Andy Jr. recounts a story of a fellow firefighter passing away. He says his memorial services had a massive turnout, with support of departments from surrounding counties, including up in Cleveland. Andy Jr. also recounts how this firefighter made him a custom bell trophy as a retirement gift, but it was only partially complete. Unfortunately, the firefighter passed away before he finished the gift. Andy Jr. says, “It means more to me now incomplete than it would’ve if he finished it.”
I ask how they deal with experiencing traumatic events in the workplace. Andy III says, “That’s when you become more of a family than ever.” Discussion between firefighters has traditionally been how they cope with trauma. But, like with many traumatic jobs, it can be hard for workers to open up. Andy III says mental health services for first responders has been an emphasis in recent years, especially surrounding PTSD. Getting everyone talking about it is what his department is striving for. Andy III says, “Day to day, what we see is often the worst days of people’s lives. It’s important for us to rely on each other.” He believes mental health is a part of safety.
Andy III is looking to recruit new talent into becoming first responders. He says, “A lot of workers quit during the pandemic. Pay and job conditions have come a long way since then.” He and MCCTC are working to reengage students to enter first responder fields and reengage current first responders back into education. He says he wants to move careers forward again. “We spent three years trying to keep our heads above water, and now we’re to the point where we want to start growing again.” According to Andy III, MCCTC has more firefighters and EMT students in classes than ever before. MCCTC is great at the entry-level training to get students into the field, but, with the additional vision of John Zehentbauer, MCCTC wants to expand into advanced training and courses. MCCTC is working on building a partnership with Ohio State Fire Academy to have their classes held at MCCTC.
MCCTC’s firefighter program history feels miraculous—one that required an amazing amount of coordination and cooperation between the Mahoning County fire chiefs, one that made it work with scraps, and one that has grown exponentially and impressively throughout the decades. Listening to Andy Jr. and Andy III talk about their passion for educational excellence is fundamentally a drive to get better every day, to become better keepers of the community every day. From a “dumping grounds” to a firefighter-producing machine, the MCCTC firefighter program’s exciting past is only beat by its promising future.
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Dom Fonce is a Marketing Content Writer for Mahoning County Career and Technical Center Adult Career Center. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Youngstown State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the NEOMFA. He has published two books of poetry. His work can be found at domfoncepoetry.com.