Manassas Journal Messenger | In the line of fire

Firefighter recruits learn what they are made of at the Prince William Public Safety Academy off Aden Road in Nokesville.

If they have a tendency to claustrophobia, they learn to get over it in the “zero visibility” maze.

If they have a fear of heights, they learn to become comfortable at the top of a 100-foot ladder.

With the help of the staff at the academy, they learn when to attack a fire directly and when to attack indirectly. They learn to overcome their limitations. They learn how to search for victims and curb their apprehensions when entering a burning building, said Lt. Chip Morrison, a training recruit officer at the academy.

They learn just how heavy a fire hose full of water is, and they get fit enough to drag it around. They learn how to bring victims out of windows and down ladders, and they learn how hard it is to rescue people from a burning building.

“They don’t realize that dragging the 165-pound dummy is as much work as it is, once they get all this gear on,” Morrison said of the turnout gear, or air tanks, masks, helmets and fire resistant suits firefighters wear to do their jobs.

“It adds another 50 pounds to you,” he said.

The recruits learn to prove themselves.

At 54, Bob Seitz was the oldest of the most recent class to graduate from the academy.

Seitz, a retired U.S. Army special forces officer, has been a volunteer firefighter “off-and-on” for 38 years, so he knew what to expect.

But he said he was surprised by the physical demands the academy placed on the recruits.

Fighting fires is hard labor with all the ladder hoisting, ax wielding, hose handling, hurrying and climbing.

Training is necessarily rigorous.

“I sleep pretty good when I get home at night,” said Seitz, who quit his job of nine years as a defense contractor to become a firefighter.

Seitz said he chose to be a firefighter in Prince William County because they didn’t laugh at him when he applied.

He said he got the feeling that fire and rescue departments in other jurisdictions were put off by his age.

Prince William County was different, he said.

“If you can pass all the tests and pass the physical and do the job, they seem to be pretty comfortable with that,” he said. “I figured if I wanted to do it, I’d better get going. I’m not getting any younger.”

Like others in the program, Seitz said he was pleased with the training he got at the academy.

“I’ve trained in some of the other facilities in the National Capitol Region. This burn building is by far the best,” he said of the charred cinder block building at the academy where newbie firefighters have their first experiences with fire and how to fight it.

Twenty-six people graduated in the most recent class, the largest class ever to pass through the academy, Morrison said. It was a particularly successful class that started with 28 people.

Morrison said that the course typically has an 80- to 85-percent pass rate.

Rescue, fire behavior, fire suppression, brush fires, ropes and knots, auto fires, auto rescue, flashovers, fire origination and tools and appliances were other subjects that rounded out the recruits’ course of study.

The recruits started every day at 7 a.m. with two hours of physical training that included time in the weight room and time running.

They finished their day at 5 p.m. after practical exercises and classwork.

And there’s homework

“It’s 21 weeks of exercise and study,” Morrison said. “It’s non-stop.”

All of the recruits were ready to get to their regular posts and to work, even though they’ll be on probation for a year after they get there.

Dan Beck came from Bridgewater, N.J., to work in Prince William County.

“We still have a lot of learning to do, but they gave us the foundation to get out there and learn from more experienced people,” Beck, 21, said of the training.

“It’s as realistic as they can make it here, but say it’s a step above out there where it’s real,” said Beck, who currently lives near Culpeper.

Morrison said the recruits will remain busy with their studies even as they move on to their careers with the department.

“They’re getting bare-bones basics here,” Morrison said. “When they get to the field they go through a probationary manuel.”

Marcello Trejo said he’s wanted to be a firefighter since he was 16. Trejo was an emergency medical technician in Los Angeles, Calif., before he came to work for the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue.

He looked for jobs for 10 years all over California and finally found an opening in Prince William County while visiting his girlfriend’s family in Centreville and Front Royal. He applied for the school.

“It’s been a heck of an experience,” said Trejo.

He said he and his classmates were “ready to take the next step.”

Seitz concurred.

“With a good, seasoned crew and a good officer and a good driver, I’m comfortable going out. I know I’ve got a lot more to learn,” he said.

Curtis White, a 3½-year veteran firefighter from Macon, Ga., came to work in Prince William County for a better chance at a promotion.

“This is a growing department,” the 33-year-old White said. “I felt like I had the opportunity to advance and move up in the ranks. The department I came from was kind of at a standstill.”

He didn’t figure the training in Prince William was wasted either. He said he was glad to have it.

“I’m adding this to what I’ve already had, plus I’m getting some advanced training up here compared to what I did have,” said White, who now lives in Manassas.

White, a U.S. Navy veteran, said firefighting is more than a job to him.

Even though he fell into it after his Navy days, he appreciates the work and loves opportunities the job affords.

“Firefighting is more than fighting fires,” White said. “You get a chance to bond with the community.”

“It’s a job that a lot of people look up to, especially the kids,” he said.

Riding in parades every now and then isn’t bad either, he said.

Daniel McCleese of Stafford graduated in May with a communications degree.

He got an office job and didn’t like it, so he looked into a firefighting job.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He just knew that he didn’t like sitting still in an office.

So he followed in his father, Dale McCleese’s, footsteps and joined the department his father has served for more than 25 years.

“This seemed like a really neat job,” said Daniel McCleese.

He called the training “fun” and said he felt he made a good choice in careers.

“Everybody who wants to do this job, even if they’re having a bad day, they still come to work,” the 22-year-old said. “There’s a lot of pride in this sort of work.”

The Prince William Department of Fire and Rescue holds two classes a year to keep up with vacancies, attrition and retirements, said Prince William Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Brett Bowman.

Last year the county had five retirements and 12 resignations from the department, Bowman said.

The department employs about 363 people.

The department fills the classes with the minimum number of people it needs, but sometimes it’s difficult competing with surrounding jurisdictions that try to recruit and hire the same bunch of people.

“We’d like to have a bigger pool to select from,” Bowman said. “We’re all hiring fire and rescue providers. It’s very competitive.”

Starting pay for a Prince William County firefighter is $38,188.80 with a $3,000 bonus upon graduation, Bowman said.

Though word-of-mouth is an effective recruiting tool, Bowman said the department casts a wide net to find potential candidates to keep the department at full force.

“We advertise on the Internet,” Bowman said. “We’re able to keep up.”

Two days before graduation, the recruits got their turnout gear.

Trejo, who now lives in Centreville with his girlfriend, Joy Childress, said it felt like an early Christmas.

“Everything’s got our names on it,” Trejo, 30, said of the reflective lettering sewn onto the firefighting jackets.

“We’re just so excited you can’t believe it,” Trejo said of himself and the other recruits.

Childress said she was glad Trejo was realizing his goals.

“It’s very exciting for me and my family to be able to see him fulfill that lifelong dream,” the 36-year-old Childress said.

“I’ve never seen him happier,” Childress said.

Trejo and the recruit class of 2005-06 graduated Dec. 16.

Similar Posts