Thursday, April 04, 2013 10:57 PM
Wilson fire academy renowned for rigor
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
Lurching forward on their forearms, four crouched firefighters crawled to a fallen comrade, connected his mask to a filled air tank and dragged him from the building to safety.
On Tuesday, they ran the rescue drill at room temperature. The next day, they fought through thick white smoke and 700-degree heat.
"Your adrenaline kicks in a little more” under live fire, Trevor Tilley said Wednesday. "It was a little hot, a little warm, a little toasty.”
Tilley is one of 17 cadets in the Wilson Community College Fire and Rescue Academy’s current class. The grueling 17 ½-week program draws volunteer firefighters and firefighter trainees from across North Carolina.
Joe Case, a 12-year lifeguard who works for the Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue Division, said he came to Wilson for firefighter training because the WCC academy ranks among the state’s most rigorous.
"We have a great academy in Dare County, but it’s not as intensive as this,” Case said. "It’s nights, it’s for people who are already working. You come out an overall better product coming through the academy.”
Firefighter cadets train from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. There’s physical conditioning, classroom instruction and live-fire drills like the ones conducted this week.
"It really kind of wears guys down physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Joseph Behrend, the college’s fire and rescue training coordinator. "It’s pretty brutal. In 17 weeks, they take 44 written tests and well above 400 physical tests.”
Twenty-five cadets enrolled in the academy’s current class, but 11 weeks in, just 17 remain. Behrend said the average attrition rate is 30 percent to 35 percent.
"It’s something we’re not proud of, but at the same time, it’s our obligation to the fire departments (to weed them out) if they can’t cut it,” he said.
The academy’s rigor attracts cadets from hundreds of miles away. Wilson Fire and Rescue Services provides lodging for nine cadets in city firehouses, and other out-of-town cadets rent rooms and apartments in Wilson.
"We’re pretty well-known for what we do here,” Behrend said. "We get them from Virginia, from the mountains, from the coast, from different walks of life. You can kind of see the differences. But it’s great to see them come together.”
RAPID INTERVENTION TRAINING
Instructors spent the better part of two days putting cadets through their paces in rapid intervention team drills. Teams of four firefighters are sent into burning buildings to rescue injured or trapped colleagues with an emergency air kit known as a RIT pack.
"Yesterday and today they’re starting to see what good shape you have to be in to be a firefighter,” Behrend said. "This is one of the most taxing things you will have to do — to rescue another fireman.”
When they find their fallen comrade, firefighters’ first priority is to ensure he or she has a full supply of air. They attach the air canister from the RIT pack to the firefighter’s mask via a universal air connection or switch masks in a maneuver known as a regulator swap.
Instructor Wes Thorton offered encouragement and called out critiques as a group of cadets completed a RIT drill on Tuesday.
"Y’all really just wasted some time,” Thorton told the team after the mock victim was turned over in a frantic search for a universal air connection. "He was laying facedown to begin with. You should have been able to tell right away whether he had a UAC or not.”
Cadets half-dragged, half-carried the mock victim across the room in a training building. They lifted him over a large wooden obstacle known as the entanglement box and carried him out of the dark room and into the sunlight.
"Each team will run it two or three times to get each fireman in a different position,” Behrend said.
On Wednesday, cadets ran the drill several times as pallets of burning hay spewed thick smoke throughout the training building. The only difference was the mock victim — instead of a cadet, teams rescued a dummy made of firehoses nailed to wooden boards positioned as arms, legs and torso.
"Practice doesn’t make perfect — perfect practice makes perfect,” Behrend said. "We’re pretty serious about that. We don’t want them to practice till they get it right, we want them to practice till they never get it wrong.”
Behrend used to teach at the U.S. Department of Defense’s firefighting academy and said training future firefighters combines his two greatest passions.
"Ever since I was a kid, all I wanted to do is teach and be a firefighter, so this is the best of both worlds for me,” he said.
‘DISCIPLINE, INTEGRITY, TEAMWORK’
On most mornings, firefighter cadets can be seen running through the streets of Wilson with one or more instructors.
"We train every day,” Behrend said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or raining. If it’s wet, we’re going to get wet.”
Cadets who complete the academy earn six North Carolina certifications — Firefighter Level I and II, Hazardous Materials I, Rapid Intervention Team, Technical Rescuer General, Technical Rescuer – Vehicle and Machinery Rescue and Emergency Vehicle Driver. They also earn two national certifications, Incident Command System 100 and 200.
"We give a lot of good certifications out, but it’s more about the discipline, the integrity, the teamwork,” Behrend said. "When they graduate, they’ve definitely earned their keep.”
All 17 members of the academy’s current class are men. Behrend said women are welcome in the firefighter program and have successfully completed it.
"We haven’t had a problem with females passing at all,” he said. "You just have to strengthen them in a different way.”
Cadets range from 17-year-olds to men approaching 40. Anyone who is at least 17 who can pass the pre-entrance physical exam is permitted to enroll.
Some members of the academy have spent years as volunteer firefighters, and some have never so much as held a fire extinguisher.
"We have guys who have no firefighter experience and we have guys who have years, so it kind of meshes good together,” Behrend said.
Cadets’ commitment extends beyond the 45 hours each week they spend at the academy. Each class completes at least six community service activities, from reading to elementary school classes to volunteering at soup kitchens and animal shelters.
"I tell the guys firefighter is really just a cool name we have to get the ladies or whatever,” Behrend joked. "We’re all public servants.”
The fire academy enjoys a friendly rivalry with Wilson Community College’s basic law enforcement training program. Firefighter and law enforcement cadets will compete to capture the opposing group’s flag, but they also participate in joint service projects and hold cookouts for one another.
"The fire department and police department need to work together, so we try to promote a good relationship,” Behrend said.
WCC Fire and Rescue Academy graduates are working at fire departments throughout the state, including agencies in Wilson, Greenville, Raleigh, Greensboro and High Point.
"I’ve got a good relationship with them, and it’s a gratifying feeling when I see them get hired,” Behrend said.
In six weeks, Behrend expects all 17 current cadets to be certified firefighters. Some will be hired as full-time workers at city fire departments throughout the state, while others will bring their training back to volunteer firehouses large and small.
"I’ve seen great things from every one of them. I expect them all to graduate,” Behrend said. "That’s what makes it worth it to me — to see the way these guys come together.”
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