EVERETT — Almost all of the recruits in Snohomish County’s first fire academy have suited up before.
But for Chau Nguyen, 33, a former furniture delivery truck driver, it was the first time he’d put on the hefty fire-resistant gear, slung the red 5-inch hose line over his shoulder and unraveled it by hauling it across wet asphalt. Like the other recruits, he seemed to run in slow motion as he neared 200 feet from the back of the engine, when friction made the hose seem heavier than it felt seconds earlier.
“You can’t really stop, and that’s kind of the heart of what this process is,” Nguyen said. “Can’t ever stop. You’ve got to fight through and keep going, because if you quit, it takes a lot of work to get back at it.”
This is the second week for Nguyen and his 26 classmates in the new training academy on the South County Snohomish Fire & Rescue grounds.
For years local firefighters have learned the basics in North Bend, with 30-plus other recruits from around the state. Seats in those classes are in high demand. So in the past year a group of local fire chiefs decided to create an academy that caters to the needs of the local departments, and one that can keep up with the county’s growing population.
The cost, they found, would be about the same as sending a class to North Bend. It cuts down on post-academy training, and pushes different departments to work together. Instructors came from a pool of about 80 experienced firefighters around the county.
“The biggest benefit to the recruits is that they get to go home every night,” said Scott Goodale, assistant chief of South Snohomish County Fire & Rescue. “They don’t have to spend 14 weeks away from their families. … Plus there’s pride in being local.”
Their first test on a drizzly 40-degree Monday was a time trial, but there was no passing or failing.
One by one, recruits raced through a series of tasks in their bunker gear. First you carry a hose. Then spray a hose. Carry two jugs of pink concentrated firefighting foam in a loop around orange cones. Lift a 100-pound ladder. Climb a ladder. Go blindfolded into a dark building, and grab one of two overlapping hoses. One leads to a dead end, the other upstairs to safety. Learn to follow by sense of touch. Outside, straddle a weight called “The Sled,” and hit it with a sledgehammer 25 or so times, until the weight moves a few feet across a track. Now that you’re out of breath, practice your radio skills. Pretend you just rolled up to a fire, and give a short report to the dispatcher. Hook up an air bottle. Tie the knots in a rope, just like you were taught last week in class.
They were finishing in 10 to 15 minutes. They’ll run the course again in a few months, and try to beat their times.
Many of the recruits have put in years as volunteers. Some were hired full time months ago by a local department.
Doug Higbee, 28, a recruit in Fire District 4, said it took him five years to get here. He waited more than a year after his hire date to start at the academy. On the course Monday, he didn’t have a target time in mind — he just wanted to control his breathing and to finish as fast as possible.
“As you work through the course you obviously become exhausted, which requires you to use your concentration, hand skills and techniques to help you,” Higbee said. “Each area is supposed to be challenging on purpose, in its own way.”
The idea is to turn awkward movements — climbing down a ladder, walking on stairs with a load, lifting a 200-pound body off the ground — into something bordering on routine, to be ready when the pressure is on for real. Already the recruits are learning to prepare for the brutal toll this job takes on the human body, said Melissa Uftring, a fitness coach who leads gym classes for the recruits.
“A lot of these guys will retire broken, similar to football players,” Uftring said. “But if they get strong, they’re less likely to get injured.”
The inaugural class drew new hires along the I-5 corridor: one from Arlington; five from Everett; four from Lake Stevens; three from Marysville; one from the city of Snohomish; six from Monroe; and seven from the new fire authority in southwest Snohomish County.
Katie Hereth, 27, is a former volunteer in Silvana who was hired in November in Marysville. She said the sledgehammer obstacle — the final physical task — was the most draining. It was a new test for her.
“Most of it is stuff I’ve done before,” she said. “It’s just getting through it. Pushing hard — which (goes for) anything in the fire service. You’re going to be tired, but you just have to push through it and get it done.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.