After 18 weeks of workouts, suiting up and putting out controlled blazes, the newest class of firefighter recruits will be graduating Friday from the Fort Wayne Fire Department academy.
A typical day at the fire academy starts with cardio and weight training. Not in a gym, but on location. Running up and down tower stairs with hose lines, lifting equipment, and of course burpees.(which combine push-ups with a jumping jack). At this stage in the fire academy recruit class, all of their exercises are done wearing the 69 pounds of equipment that they normally wear during a fire.
They use peer fitness trainers – Fort Wayne firefighters who help with the training at the academy – and use a team concept.
The fire- and water-resistant suits don't breath. As successfully as they keep heat out, they also trap the user's body heat within. Trainers keep a close eye on the recruits to make sure no one gets to the point of heat exhaustion or blacks out. On an average day they go through 37 gallons of water. In extreme conditions on the job the FWFD has an air-conditioned bus they take on location to help firefighters recover as well as tents with cool mist to bring core temperatures back down to normal.
"You can never get cool when you put on your suit; it is a matter of learning to maintain and work in extreme temperatures," said Jay Gorndt, captain of training at the academy.
With graduation a week away and the mandatory state job skills testing complete students at the academy recently fine-tuned what they had learned. On a typical day they work through a variety of exercises, rotating every 30 minutes. They work in squads of five. Every two weeks throughout their four and a half months of training they would rotate squads. Within the squad itself they all get a turn as squad leader, experiencing a taste of command.
On a recent Thursday morning the recruits were transitioning through several stations, including fire extinguisher training and search-and-rescue. The search- and-rescue is done in pairs with one recruit following on the heels of another. Instead of smoking up the building, an opaque covering of plastic wrap is placed in the shield of their helmet eye visor. The murky view simulates the smoky conditions they would find in a real fire. Using their oxygen tanks for air they crawl up two flights of stairs in the training tower to a second-story room. Their trainer tags along behind, occasionally giving instructions as needed. Inside the room cast-off pieces of furniture and plywood props simulate a small apartment. Keeping the right wall by his side, the first recruit makes his way slowly around the perimeter of the room on his hands and knees. He uses his ax to make sweeping motions in front of him to search for any obstructions that could be a hazard or fire victim.
His partner at first followed on his heels then headed back toward the door to look behind it for anyone hiding there. At all times the two men stayed in communication with each other, letting the other know what they had found and where they were in the room. Once the whole room had been searched the trainer took them back outside to discuss how it went.
In the afternoon the whole group trained on vehicle extrication and rescue techniques. The recruits spend the first six weeks of their training getting certified as basic emergency medical technicians. These skills come into play at emergency scenes.
In a two-car pileup simulation with two live patients and one dead one, the men have to decide who was the most critically wounded patient and extracted that one as quickly as was safely possible. First the cars must be stabilized before the heavy power tools, aka "Jaws of Life," can be used to pry the wreckage apart enough to get the victims out.
Gorndt said they like to use real people to play the patient roles so the firefighters must practice talking to the crash victims and when they are pulled from the wreck the patient can let them know if they are being too rough.
"They can't tell when they are twisting the mannequin's head the wrong way or pulling this way, whereas a real person feels that and will say 'Ouch, that hurts,' " Gorndt said.
So why would someone want to go through it: the hours of hard work, the knowledge one can be walking into dangerous unpredictable situations every day. Knowing your decisions could can the difference between life and death for yourself, your comrades and the people you are trying to help.
One recruit said it fit his personality; it was something he could believe in from the serving aspect to the physical level and camaraderie.
“I love the opportunity to help someone when they are in trouble,” said another recruit who had some previous volunteer fire training.
Most of the men in the squad were from northern Indiana. The men said the training is more detailed than they expected. For those with previous experience they learned new and more efficient ways of doing things; for those who have had no training everything is new.
“For me I just try to be a sponge; it's just remembering and trying to get your body to do everything you have been taught,” a recruit said.
Now weeks into training he said he is beginning to feel comfortable with his new skill sets, as well as knowing how to work within their squads. Getting used to breathing air has been one of his biggest challenges. Having people around with previous experience was a big help to him.
At 10 a.m. Friday the class will graduate from the fire academy and begin their rookie year, the first of a three-year journeyman's training.