“There’s No Such Thing As 9-1-2, Only 9-1-1…”

The 29 brave firefighters-in-training of Recruit Class 49 will graduate from the six-month program run by the Alexandria Fire Department on March 20.

Three recruits are briefed by an AFD member before approaching the vertical aeration drill in which they simulate entering through the roof of a burning building. . (Photo: Orrin Konheim)

Alexandria, VA – On February 14, Valentine’s Day, the 29 brave firefighters-in-training of Recruit Class 49 donned their apparel and scaled ladders, jumped through a roof and entered burning rooms for their final training session. This time they had an audience.

“This is one of the things that you do as a fireman that’s pretty darn special,” said Fire Chief Corey Smedley. “We get to engage our new fireman family members.”

Everything they need to know

The trainees will graduate from the six-month program run by the Alexandria Fire Department on March 20. This live demonstration offered family members and loved ones an opportunity to witness firsthand what the recruits were doing. Although some enter the program with EMT or medical skills (and their training is expedited accordingly), the program is designed to teach firefighters everything they need to know—not only firefighting and medical training, but also handling hazardous materials, driving large vehicles, and operating heavy machinery.

While the program’s curriculum covers a number of mandatory certifications, few are as intense as the burn building. Constructed 40 years ago, the building is the scene of controlled fires that recruits work on in rotations called “evolutions.” In place of live bodies, the group conducts rescues with mannequins.

The burn building allows “live fire training so recruits can get a feel for how to operate in areas that are immediately dangerous to life and health, and they can work out scenarios in groups,” said Captain Sean Europe.

“Nothing in the building is going to burn except for what we light on fire, so there’s a lot of control to it,” he added.

Live training—the real deal

The program’s class consists of 24 Alexandria recruits and five recruits for the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which uses Alexandria’s facilities. This is the first time that the two training programs have been integrated. “The only way to tell the difference is by the name on the back of their coat,” said Europe about the training group’s cohesion.

Members of Recruit Class 49 approach the burn building under guidance from AFD veterans. (Photo: Orrin Konheim)

Roughly 25 guests were on hand to watch the program in a designated waiting area. Beforehand they heard a presentation at the Lee Center by Chief Smedley and by Acting Assistant Chief Michael Cross, who told the crowd that what they’d be seeing during live training is the real deal and he assured the crowd that safety is the utmost concern.

“It’s real training. There’s fire, there’s very heavy gasses, there’s ladders where people can slip and fall,” Cross said. “I want you to understand that, but I also want you to understand that we have a lot of safety processes in place to mitigate injuries.” Tony Washington, Deputy Chief of Health, Safety and Risk Management was on site, as were various firefighters who guided the recruits through each step.

Audience members, positioned roughly 30 meters from the fires, were advised to wear gas masks and listen for the word “mayday,” should an emergency arise.

What you hope for your children

Among the people in attendance was Gary Augustine, whose son Will grew up in Alexandria and graduated from T.C. Williams. According to Gary, Will was attending community college, but struggled with it. He originally planned to join the Air Force, but a mutual friend heard about open hiring for the city’s police department, so he gave it a shot.

Parent Gary Augustine sports a plastic fire hat his son, Will, received in James Polk Elementary School. (Photo: Orrin Konheim)

“Now he wakes up at 5:30 and he loves it,” said Gary. “The thing I get out of it most is that he found a calling, and that’s what you hope for any of your children, no matter what it is, that they find something they love and that they want to do, and in his case it wasn’t college.”

Another young recruit has special significance for Acting Assistant Chief Cross and his family. His son, Michael Jr., is in this year’s graduating class. Not only will Michael, 21, join his father but he will also be the fourth generation on the paternal side of his family to be a firefighter. Cross’s maternal grandfather also worked as a dispatcher for the city’s fire department after retiring as a police officer in Prince George’s County. He passed away in 2016.

“It’s meant a lot that he’s wanted to follow in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps,” said Jennifer Cross, Michael Jr.’s mother. She later added, “They’ve got a great training staff, very dedicated, men and women who all take part in training them.”

Like all college-aged recruits, Michael Cross Jr. had to take a leave from college to accommodate the demands of training, but he plans to return to the University of Maryland to get a degree in fire science.

A father puts a gas mask on his son during the demonstration. (Photo: Orrin Konheim)

At the end of his speech, Chief Smedley called on the attendees not to underestimate their role in supporting the firefighters. “I can’t say don’t worry, but understand that we are continuously improving our safety standards so at the end of everyone’s shift, they come home to you and that’s where you don’t forget to hug them.

“There’s no such thing as 9-1-2, there’s only 9-1-1, so who do we call when we need help? We don’t have anyone else to call. We call more of us, and that’s the whole public safety family,” concluded Smedley.

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