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Fire cadet’s dream transcends both language and culture

MIDDLEBURY — English is not his first language. America is not his first culture. But this has not stopped 17-year-old Sepehr Belar from pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter.
That dream, so common among children the world over, just happens to have begun in Tehran, Iran, where Belar grew up, and where fire-related tragedies left a strong impression on him.
“One time in our neighborhood in Tehran a building exploded because of a gas leak. Another event, when I was little: I saw a disaster on the news that a 12-story building collapsed because of structure failure, and some residents died.”
In January 2017, as Belar was applying to become a cadet with the Middlebury Fire Department, he watched the news from afar as dozens of firefighters in his hometown were killed battling a blaze in one of the city’s most iconic high-rises, which collapsed on them.
A few months later, when Belar officially became a cadet, it’s fair to say he knew what he was getting into.
Fire cadets are typically 14 to 17 years old. Those who stick with it can become probationary firefighters when they turn 18, at which point they become eligible to enroll in Firefighter I training from the Vermont Division of Fire Safety.
“I think that firefighting is very important because it saves lives and property,” Belar said. “The good part of that is when you go help people and your community.”
But it hasn’t always been easy.
When his family moved to the United States five years ago, Belar had to stay up late to translate his homework into Persian, complete it, then translate it back into English again.
“Fortunately I’m good at math and physics,” he said. “I’m also in AP Calculus.”
Pursuing a new life with a new language is challenging enough in the classroom. In the firehouse — and out on call — getting things right is critical, to say the least.
“It’s been a really steep learning curve, both for Sepehr and for the fire department,” said Middlebury Fire Chief David Shaw. “The cultural differences can be tough on both sides. But he’s a lot of fun to have around — a real delight.”
And his thirst for knowledge is unquenchable.
“Sepehr loves to ask questions,” Shaw said. “A lot of questions.”
So many, in fact, that the chief has to set a limit on them.
“We’ll say, ‘OK, Sepehr, you get four questions today.’ And he’ll count them. He’ll say, ‘OK, this is my third question.’ And we’ll say, ‘Yes it is, which means you have one left, so you better make it count.’”
Fire department members love to give Belar a hard time, Shaw added, and he gives it right back.
Assistant Chief Myron Selleck, who mentors Belar in the Middlebury Fire Department, remarked on Belar’s great attitude.
“His enthusiasm to join in and learn is welcomed by all of our members,” Selleck said. “It’s rewarding to see teenagers like Sepehr who are willing to give to the community in such a positive way. I encourage more young people to get involved in their communities.”
And Belar can’t get enough of it.
“Most of everything in the fire department is fun, especially the meetings,” he said. “People at the Middlebury Fire Department are so cool.”
The hardest thing about being a cadet, in Belar’s opinion, is the limited participation.
“I cannot respond to calls when I am in school,” he said. “And cadets cannot respond to some calls like technical rescue, ice rescue, water rescue and some mutual aid.”
But being a cadet at his age is an opportunity he would not have had in Iran.
“In the United States high school students can be fire cadets if they’re under 18, but in Iran they don’t have a program like this,” Belar said.
Other firefighting differences he’s noticed between the two countries include communications and reach.
“In America, 911 dispatch is much better than Iran or other countries. When you call 911 and you don’t know your location, they can find it easily and (forward) it to emergency responders. Also in America you don’t have to call fire, EMS, and police separately. In Iran the fire number is 125, the EMS number is 115, and the police number is 110.”
And while many American small towns, like Middlebury, have their own fire departments, similar towns in Iran aren’t so lucky, he said.
Once Belar turns 18, he will become a probationary firefighter. And upon completion of Firefighter I training he can become a full member of the Middlebury Fire Department.
Offered by the Vermont Department of Fire Safety, Firefighter I training typically runs from September to April. Firefighters must train for 200 hours, which amounts to several hours a week.
“It’s a huge commitment, which can be a deterrent for some people,” Chief Shaw acknowledged.
Belar is ready to make that commitment, he said.
“When I turn 18 I want to take Firefighter training I and II, and also I want to be a fire officer.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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