Fire Academy Recruit Class 32 Takes Training, Lessons to Work
By Gina Gallucci-White and Photography by Turner Photography Studio
A hot August afternoon is about to get even hotter, as recruits with the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services strap on gear that weighs as much as a teenager. Helmet, hood, pants, coat, gloves, even an oxygen tank and breathing mask are de rigueur for many of the hopeful firefighters.
The exercise in front of them at the Public Safety Training Facility simulates an actual fire in almost every way possible, with a real flame, trucks, ladders, hoses and, of course, the recruits themselves tackling the emergency.
There will be much training reinforced here today, but as the recruits work together to face their simulated emergency, maybe the most important is brotherhood. If so, that would make Lt. Michael Knight happy.
As commander for Fire and Rescue Services’ Recruit Class 32, Knight has imparted many lessons over the 28-week fire academy. Yet the main one he hopes the recruits take away from the experience is brotherhood, no matter their gender.
After all, they could go to a call today and need to rely on each other to pull someone out of a life-threatening situation. They might have to rely on each other to save a family from a fire, help the victim of a medical emergency or respond to a vehicle crash. They could even go to work tomorrow and need to do something extraordinary to save their fellow co-worker.
“This academy is designed to have them operate in a stressful situation,” Knight says. “So, in the event when we hit the field in those stressful situations, they operate at their highest level possible.”
Recruit Class 32, about two dozen strong, started its journey in late February. Each firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT) who graduated from the academy last month is now on a probationary status for a year. During that period, academy grads are assigned to stations throughout the county; placement is based on variables such as staffing needs and the location of supervisors to provide mentoring opportunities. Once the probation period expires, they must pass several written and physical tests in order to become a regular firefighter or EMT.
There are 29 fire and rescue stations in the county, offering 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week availability for calls for service. Career firefighters provide full or partial coverage in most of the stations, often working alongside volunteers to ensure full, constant coverage. With more than a quarter of a million residents in the county, the fire service answers hundreds of thousands of calls per year.
While the primary goal of the academy is to train the firefighter/EMTs to serve the community, Knight also hopes the recruits carry the long-standing traditions of the fire service with them and pass it on to those who come after. “I want them to live to the Frederick standard. I want them to be proud to wear this patch and badge” he says pointing to his shirt sleeve and chest.
“THE FREDERICK WAY”
Centuries ago, anyone with a bucket in their hand could be a firefighter. With many wooden structures in the county during its earliest settlement days, any able-bodied individual could be a part of a bucket brigade helping to extinguish a blaze. The first volunteer fire companies formed in the early 1800s and largely became a community gathering spot for residents. Today, whether you are career or volunteer, you can’t even step foot on a fire truck without hundreds of hours of initial training as well as compliance classes to keep your knowledge up to date.
The process to just get into the academy is quite arduous and can take approximately a year. Recruit Class 32 is made up of applicants mainly from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, but anyone may apply to Frederick County’s fire academy. The application period itself usually lasts a month and nets an average of about a thousand resumes.
Applicants then go through multiple rounds of screening that cut the numbers in half each time. This helps to bring the strongest candidates to the top. They start out taking a written test and move on to the Candidate Physical Ability Test, kind of a firefighter obstacle course that is timed. Applicants then must pass a doctor’s physical exam, a drug screening and a psychiatric evaluation. One of the last steps is an interview. Those who receive the highest scores will be chosen for the next fire academy. The county hosts an average of two academies a year.
Once recruits start the academy, they complete 850 training hours in different classes focusing on all aspects of being a firefighter/EMT. This training takes place in both the classroom and on-site physical exercises and scenarios. The anatomy of a fire is examined from ignition to extinguishment, while exploring different techniques to stop the flames. There are also safety procedures in a hazardous material call, extracting a patient out of a vehicle crash, aerial operation for a ladder truck and rescuing both civilians and fellow firefighters, just to name a few. There are also physical training exercises to keep fit and make sure recruits are prepared for different stressful situations, including having zero visibility inside a smoke-filled structure.
“We train countless hours on different tricks and tips and techniques,” Knight says. Trainers also take recruits through “The Frederick Way”—additional training hours in various areas just to “sharpen their skills so when they get released into the field, they are at the top performance you can be.”
With a nearly military feel in its structure, the academy has a reputation for strictness when compared to other programs in the state. “Everything from the paramilitary atmosphere to the way we instruct different tactics and techniques for firefighter training, as well as search and rescue, [prepare the recruits],” Knight says. “When they come out, they are at the highest [level] to better serve our citizens.”
Since Frederick is not as heavily populated as the urban and suburban jurisdictions in the state, the local pool of available firefighters is smaller, so the county needs to place a particular emphasis on the recruits it hires. “The fire recruit, I always say, is the most valued resource that the county has because it is basically a 25-year investment,” says Capt. Dan Winters, recruit training coordinator. “There is nothing you are going to buy in the fire department that is going to be here 25 years from now outside of a fire house. You buy an engine; it is not going to last 25 years more than likely, but Frederick County places a high emphasis on the fire recruit because, ideally, they are going to last 25-plus years in our system, so they do have a high standard because they want to make sure they are going to get a good return on their investment.”
“A VERY HIGH STANDARD”
Kyle King grew up in the fire service as his father is a firefighter in the county. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he decided to apply to become a career firefighter because of his desire to help others and serve the community where he grew up. “There was nothing I wanted to do more,”
Speaking in early summer, about halfway through the academy, King notes his favorite aspect of the academy is getting to know his fellow recruits and taking part in internships in the field, as he had never had the on-the-job experience before. “That was a pretty cool experience to see what is actually is going to go on” when we will be at work.
“As far as the learning aspect, it has definitely been challenging but it is worth it,” King adds. “It has been fun.”
Nicholas Maxey has always had an interest in fire and rescue ever since childhood. After serving in the U.S. Marines, he came back to Frederick County and worked in construction. “Since then, there has been something missing,” he says. “I missed the structure, the brotherhood then decided to join” the fire service. Born and raised in Thurmont, he “took pride in being from here and wanting to help out in this county.”
His grandparents had volunteered for the Walkersville Volunteer Fire Company but he had no prior experience before applying. He has mostly enjoyed gaining a new sense of community in the fire service as well as taking part in ride-alongs on calls for service. “The never knowing what kind of call you are going to go on” was exciting.
Motivated to help others, Nick Wantz applied to become a career firefighter/EMT, but this is not his first taste of fire and rescue services. He is also a volunteer firefighter at United Steam Fire Engine Company #3 in Frederick. Why? “Just being able to help someone on their absolute worst day and try to make it better.”
He decided to apply to the fire academy because of the career opportunities and room for professional growth. Wantz appreciates the academy’s rigor enjoying several aspects such as the emphasis on self-discipline and physical challenges. “They hold you to a very high standard,” he says.
A standard aimed at building the brotherhood.