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For EFR recruits, the heat is on

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By Deb Hurley Brobst

The heat was on Nov. 12 for the recruits in the Evergreen Fire/Rescue firefighter academy: They fought actual fires.

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The blazes were controlled in the department’s burn training building, but the flames and smoke were real — and the 18 recruits were both excited and apprehensive about practicing what they had learned for the past three months.

Assistant Chief David Godaire called the first day of actual firefighting the “pack test on steroids.” Recuits took the pack test took over the summer, required to walk 3 miles in 45 minutes wearing 45-pound vests. Successfully completing the pack test is required both to be accepted into the firefighter academy and to get wildland fire certification.

The recruits hope to pass their Firefighter I certification test Dec. 17 and graduate from the academy in May. Firefighter I certification is required of all firefighters.

The recruits spent two Saturdays practicing scenarios in the three-story burn building in Bergen Park. Hay is used to start a smoky fire, and teams of recruits, each with an experienced trainer, enter the building with hoses. They put out the flames and look for casualties.

Recruit Kelsey Swartz was excited to finally fight a fire.

“We’ve been practicing and learning a lot,” she said. “Now it’s time to put it to the test.”

Swartz was ill the day of the training, but that wasn’t going to stop her.

“I’m sick, but at least there’s fire,” she quipped.

Recruit Jake Millenbach said being in the burning building was as awesome as he imagined.

“It’s loud, and you can’t see (in the burn building),” Swartz added. “(Training) gets better every day.”

Recruit McKenna Cook was excited to fight a fire. She said she messed up a couple times during the first rotation, but things went more smoothly the second time.

There are many more training sessions to come.

A long road

The process to become a firefighter is long, arduous and intense. The recruiting process started in April, followed by tests and interviews in June, and training began in earnest in August. In addition, recruits must exercise regularly to keep up with the physical demands of firefighting.

The new year will bring first-responder, extrication and hazardous-materials training.

Recruits spend between 12 and 18 hours a week — sometimes more — training and studying firefighting methods. In addition to attending classes and training, sometimes recruits practice on their own or with the help of an experienced firefighter.

Millenbach mentioned that the night before the fire-simulation training, he spent time at the fire station practicing donning his gear. Firefighters are supposed to be able to put on their firefighting gear — boots, pants, coat, helmet, face mask, oxygen tank, etc. — in a couple of minutes.

Working to become a firefighter borders somewhere between passion and obsession, or, more importantly, a way of life.

The recruits also learn that firefighting is not necessarily what you see on TV.

During the last three months, the academy teaches recruits the details of fighting fires, according to Capt. Stacee Martin, a spokeswoman for Evergreen Fire/Rescue.

Recruits learn how to move and set up ladders, how to choose a hose size and the water level — all of the details to keep them safe in dangerous situations.

Firefighters learn they cannot simply walk upright into a burning building, because heat rises, so they need to scoot along the floor.

They learn how to climb ladders while carrying heavy equipment such as chain saws; properly pull drywall off ceilings; and put holes in roofs.

“I can tell you how to pull a hose, but once you’re in gear, and it’s dark and smoky, it’s a different situation entirely,” Martin said. “Seeing it and doing it really makes a difference.”

Burn-building training

The teams entered the burn building wearing full firefighting gear and oxygen tanks.

“It’s not about working 100 percent all the time,” Godaire told the teams. “You have to figure out a pace. If you’re sucking air, you’re working too hard.”

EFR Lt. Alan Kopelove explained that four teams work the fire. The first team’s job is to attack the flames, with the second team searching for people in the building. The third team provides backup, and the fourth team is called the rapid intervention team, which helps if a firefighter gets in trouble.

The exercise takes between five and 10 minutes, and then there’s a debriefing afterward to discuss what went well and what needed work.

“Stairwells are chimneys,” Assistant Chief Kevin Gilbert told the recruits. “You need to be on your knees. When going down stairs, do what little kids do: Go down on your butts.”

His next bit of advice: “Be aggressive. Don’t take your time. When you get an assignment, get it done. We should be telling you to slow down, not speed up.”

Veteran firefighters say doing their jobs is about muscle memory. In dangerous situations, their bodies need to automatically know what to do.

Martin said she hadn’t worked a chimney fire in a while, so she’s glad the department will provide chimney fire training again as a refresher.

“My brain knows, but my muscles don’t,” Martin said. “We teach that muscle memory to drill it into them what to do.”

Kopelove agreed: “We learn to mentally say, ‘Calm down.’ If we get too physically tired or the adrenalin starts pumping, we use too much oxygen.”

He agreed that muscle memory is key in safely fighting fires.

A ‘super-smart’ class

Martin called this academy class “super smart,” but said that during training, everyone makes the same “silly” mistakes.

“We learn since we’re young that we’re supposed to stay low if we’re ever in a fire,” Martin said, “but everyone stands up. It’s natural. That’s good. That’s how you learn. Those are teachable moments.”

Godaire added that even though he had critiques of the recruits’ work in the burn building, their performance was awesome.

Firefighters — both recruits and veterans — get excited when the alarm sounds.

“‘Excited’ is such a bad word to use because someone is having a bad day, but going on calls gets all of us going,” Martin said. “It’s a signal that we can do something to help our neighbors. What can we do to help our community?”

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041. Check www.CanyonCourier.com for updates.