Aaron Kollmorgen finally gets to be one of the good guys with a black hat.
In the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department, recruits wear red helmets to help supervisors keep track of them at a fire scene. Their red hats don’t make them bad guys, but the trainees don’t like them. They covet the black hats the big boys and girls get to wear.
Kollmorgen, 24, said he wasn’t the kind of kid who dreamed of growing up to be a firefighter. He got interested after talking to a co-worker at Ikea where he operates a forklift. He signed up and decided to pursue a volunteer career after just a few months at Station 10 on Birchdale Avenue and Dale Boulevard. He enjoys the “adrenaline rush” when he goes to a fire.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I enjoy just everything.”
A couple of weeks before he graduated from Firefighter 1 Training, the county’s initial firefighting qualification class, Kollmorgen said he would be proud when he earned his black helmet. But the black hat comes with added responsibility. The weight of which is not lost on Kollmorgen.
“Scary is not the right word, but I’m going to feel different,” Kollmorgen said before his Oct. 20th final exam.
People count on graduates like Kollmorgen to get it right once they hit the street as full-fledged firefighters. Prior to their completion of training at the Prince William Public Safety Academy, recruits can pull duty at their fire stations, practice their firefighting skills and go on calls when the trucks roll out, but they’re restricted to work at the periphery of the fire scenes, said Steve Chappell, the assistant chief at Station 10.
Recruits can help hook hoses to hydrants and support the drivers who supervise the crews. But they can’t go into burning buildings since no one, themselves included, knows how they’re going to react.
“They can do outside activities,” Chappell said. “They’re not going to be put in an environment where it’s immediately dangerous.”
Recruits don’t know how to cut a hole in a roof to ventilate a burning building and draw the smoke out. They haven’t learned how to hoist ladders or work as a team to get the ladders from the truck to a burning building.
They don’t know how to wear air masks and they don’t know how it feels to control high pressure fire hoses. They haven’t yet learned how fire behaves with different fuels such as gas, wood or chemicals. They don’t truly understand the physical demands that eliminate some from the training.
And that’s just the practical side of the job. There’s book learning that has to happen, too.
It’s in the classroom where recruits learn how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, identify and handle hazardous materials and infectious agents. It’s also where they begin to learn the stress management techniques they will need if they plan to continue fighting fires for any length of time.
As he was beginning training, Kollmorgen was confident in his abilities. He’s young and in good shape.
“I tend to like to do the physical,” said Kollmorgen, who wears a blue denim baseball cap that his dog chewed just about to pieces. “I don’t think I’ll have a problem with anything.”
As he progressed through training, Kollmorgen learned just how heavy 70 pounds of personal protective gear can be when you’re trying to pull a 175 pound practice dummy out of a building.
It’s not that he was singing a different tune, he was just surprised.
“Rescue was pretty tough,” he said. “I go to the gym. I work out, but still … lifting the bodies is pretty hard.”
The recruits add steadily to their skills every Monday and Wednesday night and all day on Saturdays during the three-month course at the academy off Carriage Ford Road in the Nokesville area.
Their goal is to “put it all together” by the time they get to the “burn building” said Art Jordan, lead cadre instructor for Prince William Fire and Rescue.
The recruits have practiced with nozzles and they know how to deploy their fire hoses before their instructors set a fire inside the two-story cinder block building and send them in to put it out, said Jordan, a volunteer at the Buckhall Volunteer Fire Department.
“Nothing should really be a surprise,” the 50-year-old communications engineer said. Still, the recruits encounter the unexpected. “They see little fingers of fire coming at them,” Jordan said.
Once inside the burn building, the recruits learn that heat from the fire can get through their protective gear.
“It feels like a bee stinging when you get a little burn,” Jordan said.
They learn that radiant heat can make their fire helmets too hot to touch with their bare hands and that a fire can make the water from their hoses hot enough to scald somebody.
About half of the recruits don’t get far enough through the course to see the burn building, said Jason Auth, an academy instructor and career firefighter in Washington, D.C.
“They don’t realize the hours they have to spend practicing what they learned in training,” he said.
Any number of obstacles at the academy can finish a recruit’s career. Some falter when they’re blindfolded and asked to negotiate a maze.
The simplest things eliminate others, said Pete deGeus, a recruit at Occoquan -Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department and classmate of Kollmorgen’s.
“You’ve got to be able to breathe air out of a tank,” the 23-year-old waiter said.
Others, Auth said, simply decide they don’t want to be firefighters. As many as 50 percent fail to complete the course.
“Firefighting’s not for everybody. It takes a special type of person to run into a building everybody else is running out of,” he said.
Others can’t meet the schedule, said Kollmorgen, who described the time commitment as “huge.”
“I didn’t know it was going to be such a big commitment,” he said.
Ben Williams, Kollmorgen’s co-worker at Ikea, said recruits have to “put the rest of their lives on hold” to get through training.
“It’s a lot to ask,” the 23-year-old said.