11 firefighter hopefuls wait for test results

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2007

When Ben Van Sickle showed up for firefighter level-one training, he didn't expect to be into academics before the hose and ax. The first packet the students received from the instructor contained 600 pages of information and 200 pages of workbook.

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"I had to take a step back," Van Sickle said.

This weekend, he took a step forward, finishing academic and practical exams in hope of becoming a firefighter with Capital City Fire and Rescue. Van Sickle, 23, spent 14 hours a week preparing for the tests.

In all, 11 hopeful volunteer firefighters took 150 hours of in-class training since New Year's Day. Those who pass Saturday's academic and practical exams will add to Juneau's volunteer cadre and 30 full-time firefighters.

Van Sickle passed the practical portion of the level-one test, but the results for the written test aren't expected until early May.

"I think I did well," Van Sickle said.

The volunteers who pass the first level course become "yellow tags" eligible to work a fire in any capacity the department assigns them to. They will be equal to an apprentice-level firefighter.

Fighting fires is a physical hands-on job that also requires science and intellect to perform well and safely, said John George, Juneau's fire training officer.

"It is a lot of work for volunteers," he said.

In an attempt to broaden the concept of firefighting, George introduced and defined the word profession on page one of the student workbook - a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.

"They are volunteers, but when someone dials 911 they expect a professional to show up," George said.

Firefighting is not a reactionary business; science and skill determine the attack, Van Sickle said.

The most useful class work for Van Sickle came in with the science of fire behavior. Knowing why ventilation works, and how fire and water react is essential in a room choked with super heated gas and fire. If you spray water into the heated gasses gathered near ceiling, the heat descends and scorches anyone below, Van Sickle said.

Though the test contained 100 questions, firefighting students prepared for a possible 800 questions with weekly lessons and supplemental quizzes and homework.

Tony Robertson, 40, considers himself a hands-on kind of guy. The second-generation firefighter in training said that without the class information, "We couldn't predict what might happen next with a fire, or what to watch for."

When fighting fires, or working disasters and medical calls, the most important lesson is to think, George said.

"There is no other fire department coming," he said.

One more unofficial test awaits the trainees. George said no graduation would be complete without a real test of their knowledge and training.

"I need to burn a house for them this summer," he said.

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