One by one, task by task, dressed in full firefighting gear with air tanks, the recruits pressed on through the course. Climbing flights of stairs. Pulling a hose up four stories. Chopping wood to …
One by one, task by task, dressed in full firefighting gear with air tanks, the recruits pressed on through the course. Climbing flights of stairs. Pulling a hose up four stories. Chopping wood to simulate cutting through a roof. Crawling across wood framing and then through a tunnel. Carrying weights, collecting and then laying out a hose. Tying a knot. Over and over again.
Nine weeks prior to this breezy November day, 10 young men started the Orange Beach Fire Recruit School and could barely go three laps on what’s called the “Consumption Course” at the fire department’s training tower. Now, they go until the air tanks run out.
“We’ve all come a long way,” said recruit Trey Williams, 19, of Orange Beach. “I’ve lost almost 15 pounds. But shoot, this consumption course, we couldn’t even finish three rounds without coming off air. The first time a lot of us had been on air packs was during the consumption course. Now we’re so comfortable we could probably sleep in these things. It’s awesome. I’m so lucky and blessed to be able to participate in this. All of these guys, I know, feel the same way.”
On Sept. 11, Williams and nine others, mostly from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, began the 10-week fire recruit school that has its curriculum dictated through the Alabama Fire College and the Personnel Standards Commission, according to Battalion Chief Kevin Lanford, the lead trainer.
“It’s been a good class,” Lanford said. “It’s a good group of young men. We do a lot of classes such as fire service history, communications, chain of command and then we move into protective clothing, fire gear they’ll wear, and the breathing apparatus. Then we learn some skills with the breathing apparatus to get them used to it. Then we move onto fire behavior, forcible entry, fire control, search and rescue, salvage and overhaul, preventing loss, ground ladders, auto extrication, vehicle rescues, we do some ropes and knots. … It’s a nationally accepted textbook, the course, that we follow.”
Lanford said the group is the first full recruit school, covering 10 straight weeks, that the Orange Beach Fire Department has done in about 20 years. The class is part of the department’s Resident Firefighter Program, which started in 2014. All of the recruits have been provided living quarters and a small stipend for the duration of the 10-week course.
“They get room and board,” Lanford said. “They fill a position for us and they get experience and training. This is easily a $2,500 course to take so they’re getting education in exchange for their commitment to serve with us for awhile.”
Fire Chief Justin Pearce said he hopes the recruit school graduates spend about a year with the residency program and then get hired by Orange Beach or local department.
“We’ve had firefighters from the resident program get hired in place like Mountain Brook, Mobile, Gulf Shores, Foley, Daphne, so all over the area,” Pearce said. “It’s definitely been a huge success with the program so far.”
According to Lanford, about a dozen current Orange Beach firefighters are graduates of the department’s recruit school.
For Williams, he said he’s always wanted to be a fireman so anyplace where he can start working as a full-time firefighter would be a blessing.
"The guys here all want to help,” Williams said. “All of the shift guys come out and help us on our training days. So we’ve gotten to learn about them and they’ve gotten to learn about us really well. I’ve become good friends with a lot of the guys on the shift, paid guys. It’s been cool.”
Fellow recruit, 20-year-old Wesley Keith of Gulf Shores, said he has been impressed with the firefighters’ brotherhood, especially with his football background, just like Williams, and the recruits have formed a tight-knit group.
“We all hang out in the common area,” Keith said. “We play pool. We play ping pong. We watch movies. We study together. We cook together. We have dinner. We built a very tight bond very early, which is pretty awesome.”
For the past two years, Keith said he volunteered at the Gulf Shores Fire Department and really got hooked after his first structure fire last spring. Finally, making the cut for the competitive fire recruit program was a huge step toward his goal of becoming a full-time firefighter.
“I would like to stay locally - Gulf Shores, Orange Beach,” Keith said. “Gulf Shores has been my roots but the guys here are solid. I’d love to do part-time for both if I could or part-time in Foley. It doesn’t matter. I just want to get as much experience as I can. I’d like to stay in Baldwin County for sure.”
Other recruits include Lathan Adams of McIntosh, Alabama, Saylor Hammett of Orange Beach, Jonathon Jones of Gulf Shores, Zac McKinnon of Robertsdale, Noah Parker of Gulf Shores, Ben Pelt of Foley, Gary Roberts of Orange Beach and Josiah Wigal of Satsuma.
"The Orange Beach Fire Recruit School is an excellent proving ground for dedicated young men and women looking to become firefighters,” said Orange Beach City Administrator Ken Grimes. “In a market where a trained labor force is already tight and looking at a career field where so many are eligible to retire, this class is a perfect fit in preparing these individuals for a great career in the fire service. I am proud every time I am able to see these candidates graduate the class and receive their badges right here in Orange Beach."