PEABODY — When Engine 4 from the Tremont Street fire station pulled into the McCarthy School Thursday morning with its lights flashing, kindergartners, parents and staff were already standing out front.
There wasn't a fire, and it wasn't a fire drill. Firefighters, rather, were dropping 6-year-old Jay "JJ" Thomas Della Porta off at school.
JJ got the special ride after winning a drawing contest, held as part of the district's fire prevention classes conducted by Peabody firefighters.
Fire Lt. Paul Silva and firefighter Justin Sauvageau rode along with JJ in the fire engine, as firefighter Dan Smith drove.
"He loved it," Sauvageau said of JJ. "He said he wanted to be a firefighter when he grows up."
Students in Kelli Coughlin's kindergarten class cheered and clapped as the cabin door swung open and JJ was helped down, wearing his own fire captain's gear and helmet.
He received a big hug from mom, Laurie Della Porta, as his dad, Jay, took videos on his cellphone. JJ's grandparents were also there.
"I ride on the fire truck," said JJ, who held up his winning drawing. When asked if he wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up, JJ shook his head yes.
"It's amazing," said Jay Della Porta. "He wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. He's absolutely over the moon."
Fire Chief Joe Daly, Superintendent Cara Murtagh and McCarthy Principal Michelle Zottoli were also on hand.
During Fire Prevention Week in October, Murtagh said firefighters went to all 25 kindergarten classes in the city's eight elementary schools to talk about fire prevention.
"It was a well-run lesson and teachers also followed up in the instruction after the firefighters left. The culminating activity was this drawing of a picture of their understanding of fire prevention," Murtagh said.
Murtagh, Daly and police Chief Tom Griffin chose a winning drawing from each school. All eight winners are due to ride to school in a fire truck over the next several weeks; JJ was the first.
Daly said the fire prevention program exposes young children to the fundamentals of fire safety, such as how to dial 911. It also helps firefighters make connections with the kids.
"It's good for everybody," Daly said.
Jay Della Porta said his son absorbed the lessons from the fire prevention class.
"He even talks about keeping his door shut at night to make sure it's safe in case of a fire," Jay Della Porta said. "He's really into it."
JJ said his picture shows "a house on fire" with firefighters "and there's all the gear on."
Silva, the fire lieutenant, said the lesson that JJ learned was kids should not be afraid of firefighters when they are wearing all their gear.
"A lot of the kids before we started doing all this, may have been scared of us in all of our gear. We look different, we sound different, but underneath, we needed to kind of tell them that we are just a regular person underneath," Silva said.
Silva also agreed that as a "captain," JJ outranked him.
"He does. He told us where to go this morning," Silva said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.
Fire prevention kindergarten drawing winners and dates of their fire truck rides
Nov. 7: Jay Della Porta, McCarthy School
Nov. 14: Mila Cibotti, Burke School
Nov. 15: Nathaniel Espinal, Carroll School
Nov. 18: Michael Iula, West School
Nov. 19: Helena Dutra, Welch School
Nov. 27: Juliana Karaj, South School
Dec. 5: Alice Maria Dominic Savio, Center School
Dec. 9: Elyse Rougier, Brown School