Orland firefighter recruits get a taste of the real thing
By Mike Nolan email@example.com September 28, 2012 4:20PM
Orland Fire District new recruit Jennifer Smith takes abreak from a drill during a training drill at the Orland Fire District training center at 10728 W. 163rd Place in Orland Park, IL on Friday September 28, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 1, 2012 6:24AM
It’s not boot camp, but for new recruits with the Orland Fire Protection District, the grounds of the district’s training center literally represent a trial by fire.
Three weeks into an eight-week training academy, the district’s 11 recruits — some of them possessing little or no firefighting skills — are immersed in what fire Chief Ken Brucki describes as a “para-militaristic” environment. A drill instructor puts the firefighter wannabes through their paces, and they start each morning at 7 a.m. with a one-mile jog. They’re expected to salute any senior officer, he said.
“We want them to know structure and discipline,” Brucki said.
For those who’ve already spent some time in fire service elsewhere, that’s all well and good, but it really doesn’t amount to squat, Brucki implied.
“If you have fire experience somewhere else, good,” the chief said. “We set the bar high knowing they (recruits) are not all going to meet it.”
On Friday, after the recruits wrapped up a drill on attacking a simulated fire, Brucki and Lt. Dave Piper, the district’s training officer, gave them a thumbs-up.
“So far they’ve performed well,” Brucki said. “Their skill sets are excellent.”
Starting their training Sept. 10, the recruits could be assigned to a station by early November, he said. Finishing their training doesn’t guarantee them a job with the district — they’ll serve a one-year probationary period, with a red shield on their helmets indicating their status.
The 11 were hired by the fire protection district board this summer in an effort to reduce the district’s overtime costs, which are running in the neighborhood of $2 million. They represent the district’s first firefighter hires since September 2007.
‘This is real’
Where recruits get a taste of the real thing is a soot-tinged, four-story brick tower. Wood and straw are set ablaze at the base of the structure — while some theater smoke is used in the upper floors — and temperatures on the lower floors can reach 1,000 degrees.
Still, Piper said, it can’t simulate an actual fire tearing its way through the typical American home, filled with plastics — such as electronic components and even furniture — that burn intensely and give off toxic fumes.
One crew battles the flames, followed by another group searching for fire victims, which are actually mannequins. They vary in weight, Brucki said, from a fairly easy-to-tote “infant” up to a nearly 200-pound “adult.”
Regardless of whether one is new to the fire service or a seasoned veteran, a fire — simulated or not — is a scary place to be, Brucki said.
“You can’t see nothing in there (the tower),” he said. “It’s hot, and you have to yell face to face to hear each other. This is real. We are lighting a real fire in there.”
One recruit is put in charge of three others, although an instructor is close by, the chief said. Standing outside and listening to the radio communications, it’s easy to hear a degree of panic in their voices, Brucki said.
The dense smoke means trainees have to feel their way around a room, and “you put one of them in charge of three other lives. It’s a stressful situation for even the most conditioned firefighter,” Brucki said.