Firefighter trainees learn at military-style camp

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The recruits stood in formation and snapped to attention when the command was given.

They wore yellow bunker gear instead of military uniforms and their instructor, Capt. Ben Fleagle, wore a firefighter's helmet instead of a drill instructor's hat.

Fleagle yelled, ''What's the three things that make a good firefighter?''

The recruits yelled in unison, ''Training, sir! Fitness and health, sir! Attitude, sir!''

It wasn't a boot camp for the military, but the University Fire Department's five-week academy to teach incoming recruits the basics before they can become student firefighters.

The academy is unlike others because it uses military-style discipline to train recruits and instill a sense of brotherhood.

''Today's young people are not taught brotherhood, to put their brother and sister first,'' said Fleagle, who together with University Deputy Fire Chief Mike Holzmueller ran the academy. ''In fire service we still do that.''

And, as Holzmueller explained, discipline is necessary when fighting fires because in life-and-death situations the person in charge gives the orders, which need to be carried out without question.

''It's not done by consensus,'' Holzmueller said. ''There's one person in charge. The tasks have to be completed as ordered.''

Most of the recruits admit the adjustment to this style of training was rough at first, but in the end they understood the method to get a group of men with different backgrounds and personalities to pull together.

''Your worst enemy can become your best friend under Fleagle's direction,'' said Luke Flanders, 18, a recruit from Fairbanks.

The academy was also designed to give them the confidence needed to be a firefighter.

''It takes everything to fight the survival instinct to go into a burning building,'' said Jeff Hoagland, 31, who took time away from his full-time job at Beaver Sports to attend the academy. ''That's the rush, overcoming that fear and taking control of that fire.''

This is the first time the university has put together this type of program and, judging by the success of the first one, which wrapped up earlier this month, Fire Chief Mike Supkis said there will be more.

Money isn't a problem. The cost is covered through federal grants the department gets because the student firefighter program works similar to a college work-study program, he said, but gets more funding because it's in the interest of public safety.

''The space is the issue,'' Supkis said.

Basic training days for the recruits usually started with formation at the campus station at 7:15 a.m. Then they drove over to the Fairbanks Regional Fire Training Center at Lathrop Street and 30th Avenue.

They generally started the day with a variety of physical training, which included drills such as carrying hoses up the six-story concrete training building and plenty of push ups. Then they spent the entire day bouncing between the classroom and the concrete building outside where they would practice that in-class instruction in full bunker gear.

There was a lot to learn, from becoming familiar with each piece of equipment in the fire station to how to find a person while crawling on hands and knees through a smoky building.

All of the drills were geared to using the equipment in an orchestrated manner that will become automatic by the time they go on fire calls, Holzmueller said.

Before the recruits leave the training center Fleagle rallies the troops to give them a pep talk and answer questions. Then the day ends back at the station, usually washing engines and equipment at around 6 p.m.

''It's been a long five weeks,'' Flanders said. While going through the academy he had to deal with planning a wedding, then spent many nights in the final week staying up late at night studying for quizzes and exams.

Despite this, the end of the academy saddened him.

''It's been a great experience. I'm really glad I joined,'' he said.

To help the recruits along during the academy was Fleagle, who at times got in the recruits' faces and yelled at them, acting every bit the drill instructor's part.

''Right from the start he told us we'd want to hate him and we ended up loving him,'' said Ryan Mead, 20, one of the two recruits from New York. ''The first two weeks he called us girls.''

Fleagle, who was an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1984-1988, said he found playing the drill sergeant role was easy to slip into.

''It was kind of scary how well it flowed out of me,'' Fleagle said. ''I asked for a good 110 percent out of them and got that every day.''

At a graduation celebration barbecue, Fleagle sat at a table full of recruits eating a hamburger and chatting with his charges. Despite his relaxed demeanor they each still addressed him as ''sir.''

''It will be weird to see the human side of him,'' said recruit Robert Catena.

Holzmueller said the academy had about 40 men and women apply from all over the nation. They went through physical and written tests, which whittled the field down to 17 recruits. Three recruits opted to leave the academy in the first few days.

The 14 left over lived the duration of the academy in the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Bartlett Hall. For some it was their first taste of dorm life and a chance to become part of something greater: a family.

''One of the best things for me is we were 14 acquaintances when it started,'' said Nick Lancione, a 22-year-old recruit who moved from New York three years ago with the intention of getting into the department. ''Now I've got 14 brothers, I've got 14 friends.''



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