"They just want the community to know that they're capable. That they're not just some knuckleheads skateboarding down the street," teacher Mike Christman says.

Through the doors of the only HVAC classroom at Dover High School, five teenage boys saunter in with backpacks slung over a shoulder, some sliding in on skateboards. They joke, laugh and mess and around.

What you might not realize is this small team is developing a project that could save lives in their community.

For the past few months, the 11th and 12th grade students in Mike Christman’s higher level heating, ventilation and air conditioning course have been working with the Dover Fire Department to create a dryer for firefighters’ gear.

A gear dryer can improve the fire department’s ability to quickly respond to calls and reduce cancer rates among firefighters, the students explained.

“We never knew about the problem [of gear not drying quickly] and the dangers it caused until we started doing more research into it, and we realized that this is a really good thing to bring into the community,” student Logan Ellis said.

Dirty gear can cause cancer?

At the Dover Fire Department, they use a drying rack made from ladders and broomsticks and a fan to dry their gear after washing. This can take from 24 to 72 hours, said Sean P.M. Christiansen, Capital School District board member and former fire chief.

“A firefighter is out of service for that period of time because his gear isn’t ready to be utilized,” Christiansen said.

Assistant fire chief Michael Morris said the firefighters typically need to turn their gear around in four to five hours. This means they often wear dirty gear, instead of waiting a full day for it to dry.

That’s where concerns about cancer come in.

“Cancer has been a big thing in the fire service lately,” Morris said. Products burning in fires today are made from different materials than before, and they’re burning hotter and faster, he said. “That stuff clings to [the gear].”

Many of these contaminants are carcinogens and skin toxic chemicals.

In a multi-year study between 2010 and 2015, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths among firefighters, compared to the U.S. population.

“The main way we can prevent this is to get the contaminants off our gear,” Morris said.

A few firefighters have a set of gear at each station, one on Governors Avenue downtown and another on Kenton Road. Sometimes firefighters can use a spare if theirs is out of service, but it’s not feasible to buy a bunch of extra gear at $3,000 a set, Morris said.

The price tag is another reason they cannot use a traditional tumble dryer, which would degrade the material and shorten its lifespan.

They needed a gear dryer, and they heard there was a classroom of five young minds ready to solve the problem.

Classroom on the job

Mike Christman’s HVAC class first met with the Dover Fire Department and school board member Sean P.M. Christiansen Sept. 25.

The students researched the problem and planned a dryer that would reduce drying time to four to six hours.

They came up with a design in one week and made blueprints using the auto computer-aided drafting classroom across the hall, student Jordan Jones said.

“As soon as someone says an idea, we’re all thinking about what we can do to improve it or what we can do to fix it in any way, shape or form,” he said, adding that most of the students have worked together for three years now.

The class presented the community project to district administration in October and got approval to use class time and receive a grade for their work.

Christiansen said the networking and job-ready skills from the Career and Technical Education project could jump start their careers after high school.

“The intent of the program is to put them in a position to be contributors to the community, and what better way to contribute to the community than to [help] the volunteer fire department,” Christiansen said.

Next, they drafted a list of required materials and prices, received approval from school leadership and started to build in November.

Unveiling the prototype

They presented their finished prototype to the fire department and CTE Advisory Board at Dover High School Nov. 21.

Christman’s classroom was filled with community partners, teachers and firefighters who burst into applause as they unveiled the prototype.

“I think it will be a big difference. It’s something that will probably get used daily, at least four to five times a week,” Morris said. “I like it. I think it’s the beginning of a couple different projects that we’ll have for them.”

Beyond getting initial feedback from the fire department, the students hoped to gain sponsorships, so they can give the first dryer to the fire department for free as a thank-you for their service.

Several people at the meeting pulled out checkbooks after the presentation. The students are offering three different levels of sponsorship packages, and each sponsor’s name will be added to a plaque permanently attached to the finished drying unit.

Project manager Christopher Whitney has been going door to door asking community partners for sponsorships since late October.

“The most challenging thing for us as a class is getting sponsorship for this project because we can go to a company and they have to send it off to their franchise, or the manager is not there, so we have to leave it with a coworker, and we don’t know if the manager got it or not,” he said.

As his teacher, Christman said he has enjoyed seeing students like Whitney grow more confident by going outside their comfort zone.

“You see a lot of growth in these gentlemen,” he said. “Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean that they’re not capable. I think that’s what they’re proving with this project. They’re doing some grownup stuff. Stuff that grownups don’t even do.”

The fire department treats the students like a vendor, Morris said.

“It’s a real-world project for them. They’ve been very nice and easy to talk to and work with,” he said.

The students are creating a service manual, and any extra funds will go toward creating gear dryers for area volunteer fire departments.

“We’ll be able to spread it out to the entire state, which can lead to government officials noticing us and doing way more good for the state,” Ellis said.

For sponsorship information, contact charles.christman@capital.k12.de.us.