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Trial By Fire Young Recruits Put Academy Training Into Practice And Try To Prove Themselves Worthy Of Jobs With Valley Fire District

Flashing lights and screaming sirens are what they sign up for. Garden hoses and chamois are what they often end up with.

Seven recruits who recently graduated - after 13 weeks of classes - from the joint city-Valley fire academy are spending the next three months as probationary firefighters with the Valley Fire District. If all goes well, they will go from “probie to rookie” - as one of the recruits put it - and be hired as permanent firefighters on Sept. 27.

It’s just after 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. The shift is little more than an hour old, but for probationary firefighter Andy Reilly, there is work to be done. The fire truck needs to be washed.

Despite the daily truck washing duties, the adrenaline rush is all that Reilly, 28, expected.

“People see us and think, ‘Oh, that’d be an exciting job,”’ Reilly said. “It’s exciting in a lot more ways than you’d imagine.”

Reilly, who is allowed to drive the truck only in non-emergency situations while on probation, eased Engine 1 back into the garage at Valley Fire Station 1 after a responding to a lunch-time fender-bender. Just as soon as the truck stopped, a second call came in.

Reilly jumped out of the driver’s seat and raced to pull on his fire-retardant pants and jacket. He secured his helmet firmly on his head and buckled his seat belt in the back seat as driver Jeff Bordwell directed the truck into traffic.

The firefighters were quiet as the 32,000 pounds of steel, chrome and water of Engine 1 raced through the Valley streets - sirens blaring and lights flashing - on its way to a dryer fire on Haverly Circle.

The fire turned out to be minor. Reilly and Bordwell easily extinguished a small pile of smoldering clothes, but Reilly was prepared for the worst.

“You hear a call and the first thing you think is it’s going to be a really big,” Reilly said.

Had it been a house fire, Reilly would have won a bet with the rest of the recruits about who is going to fight the first structure fire while breathing from their air tanks.

Reilly, who organized the bet, has already fought a structure fire while being assisted by his air tank and could have collected his winnings, but he had not contacted all of the recruits about the bet.

“I would have felt bad if the day after I started the bet I would have won it,” Reilly said. “Besides, I still had one person to call.”

Nevertheless, after countless simulated fires during training, Reilly was proud and relieved to have fought his first live fire.

“There was smoke down to here,” Reilly said, holding his hand even with his knees, “which means it had been burning awhile.”

Reilly went on to tell the tale of his first fire, recalling how he and two other firefighters broke down the locked door and crawled through the house searching for people early Monday morning. Reilly left out few details while he described attacking the basement fire, which had spread into the attic by the time Engine 1 screeched to a halt.

“It’s not like in the movies where it’s clear and you get to stand up,” Reilly said. “There’s smoke everywhere and you can’t see a thing.”

The biggest thrill of all came in the basement.

“The officer on the ladder truck was nice enough to hand me the hose and let me put out the fire,” Reilly said, grinning as he relived the moment. “It was good to get that first fire out of the way so early.”

At 2:30 in the afternoon, Reilly and the rest of Engine 1 find themselves at the Valley Fire training center for an afternoon class of knot tying and rappelling.

Several other firefighters have gathered for the exercise, including probationary firefighters John Leavell and Dan Wittenberg.

“Just jump,” Leavell yells to Reilly as his legs dangle from the third story of the fire training tower.

“The eye is definitely on you,” Leavell said. “They’re always watching you whether you know it or not.”

But Leavell, 26, said he doesn’t worry about the pressure of being on probation. Leavell’s first few weeks have gone smoothly. Faith in his training, the helping hands of the rest of the guys in his station and, of course, the other recruits have helped him adjust.

“It helps that we kind of bonded as a group in the academy,” Leavell said. “Now that we’re in (different) stations, we still call each other. It’s kind of a little support group within the big group.”

Across the blacktop, Wittenberg is rolling the last of the hoses after a drill designed to instruct the recruits how to run the truck’s water pump. At 45, Wittenberg is the oldest of the new recruits, but still in great shape. The retired Air Force pilot churned out 225 pushups to smash the old academy record of 126.

“Well it’s not really any big deal,” Wittenberg said. “There are records for physical fitness and every class tries to outdo each other.”

“What? Two-hundred-twenty-five pushups? That’s a big deal, Dan,” corrected Leavell, who strained to do 40 push-ups.

“No it’s not if you do a little training,” Wittenberg said as Leavell mimicked his words. Then Wittenberg quickly changed the subject to Leavell’s record time of 2 minutes, 48 seconds in the combat course.

“That’s a big deal,” Wittenberg said. “You don’t just go out for a stroll and do that.”

Cliff Mehaffey, Mark Bankey, Jon Sprague and Brandon Kim round out the class of recruits who will jump from station to station every 10 shifts for the next three months, hoping to leave their mark on different officers and make it as Valley firefighters. At each stop a battery of drill and exercises awaits the recruits.

“I remember how it was when I came came into the station, how intimidating it was,” said Bordwell, a member of last year’s fire academy class. “I know what this job means to me and I’d like to see all of these recruits make it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

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