One story opens in north Vietnam, when Chau Nguyen’s mother fled the country as a refugee around 1985.
Nguyen was a baby. He never learned the full saga of how they crossed the ocean to a new home outside of Compton, California, where they weathered poverty, gunfire and the Los Angeles riots. His mom, Linda, worked 10- to 12-hour shifts, six days a week in a nail salon, so her kids could have better lives.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with a deadly brain cancer, around the time her son moved to Washington. Her kids brought her here. Often they had to call 911 — sometimes Nguyen, 33, a personal trainer, simply could not lift her. At least twice firefighters saved her, he said. He saw the compassion they showed her. He was in awe. They gave him another 1½ years with his mom.
One day at the gym, a friend mentioned that Nguyen would make a good firefighter. He brushed it aside. The way he grew up, it didn’t seem like an option. He’d never worn bunker gear or revved a chainsaw. But the idea lingered and grew. He wanted to help others.
“Maybe on the next call, I can treat somebody’s mom the way my mom was treated,” he said.
Nguyen, a recruit with the Everett Fire Department, this summer became one of 26 graduates in the first class of a new academy in Snohomish County. He’s the only one with no background in firefighting.
For years, recruits around this county have trained at a state fire academy in North Bend. Classes fill up and wait lists are long. The state can’t churn out firefighters fast enough for a big county with a booming population. Those who graduated would return home needing a month or more of extra training, to learn how their department does things. It cost money and time.
Last fall, chiefs across the county agreed to pool staff and gear for an academy here, based at South County Fire south of Everett. The price would be about the same as sending recruits to North Bend. More than ever, fire departments have been helping with their neighbors’ 911 calls. Here was another chance to work as one.
“The boundaries are becoming less and less relevant,” Everett Fire Division Chief Matt Sorenson said. “So we have to work together.”
One of the first days on the drill field, it snowed. By the end of the 14-week class, the recruits were sweating in blazing summer heat under 70 pounds of heavy gear.
Week 1, Intro to fire
The class begins with a lecture on the basics of how to be healthy. Sleep. Don’t show up drowsy. Eat better. Brush your teeth. Find a hobby to decompress. You never get to skip the gym anymore. You gave up the right to be selfish. The lives of your neighbors and your fellow firefighters are in your hands. Don’t forget.
You have to be strong to pick up a 300-pound man wedged between a tub and a toilet, says Melissa Uftring, an Everett Community College gym coach who leads a fitness class. You have to be strong in the head, too, to live with stresses and horrors.
“The stronger you are, the harder it is to break you,” Uftring tells the recruits, who stand in rows with hands clasped behind their backs. “You want to be one of those hard-to-kill people.”
You have to set aside what you think you already know, to be a sponge for what you’re going to learn, says Cory Dowell, a recruit with South County Fire.
Dowell, 25, moved with his family from Snohomish to Chelan at age 13. By his senior year, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Maybe contracting, or welding. Or he could follow in the path of his stepdad, Conrad Clementson, a captain for what was then Snohomish County Fire District 1.
Dowell went on ride-alongs in high school, shadowing firefighters who were second family, guys who helped build his home. Some would be his teachers at the academy.
He was on his way to a firefighting career when his stepdad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Clementson had raised Dowell since he was a toddler. It’s possible the disease was tied to a quarter-century of breathing smoke in the fire service, but that’s hard to prove, Dowell said. Clementson fought for three years, until cancer took his life in 2016. He was 48.
“He set forth a legacy that I want to follow as close as I can,” Dowell says.
Dowell fought fires as a part-timer and volunteer. He was a paramedic at a Chelan hospital and worked construction jobs for the family business.
On weekends he crosses the Cascade Range to attend classes, the same commute his stepdad made.
Week 2, The basics
In the classroom, the top student each week is awarded First Whip, named after a fire captain’s driver in an era when engines were pulled by horses.
Other traditions trace to military boot camp. If a chief opens a door, everyone snaps to attention, stands up and shouts: “Good afternoon, sir!” Except here, you get to go home and eat better food than in basic, says Mark Bates, who served as an infantryman in the Marines. He ends sentences with “sir.” Bates was picked the first First Whip of the academy.
“Fire behavior! Ventilation! Ground ladders! Fire control!”
All of those are fun — unlike tactical radio channels, says Fire District 7 Lt. James Hammeren, the guy stuck leading radio class. The textbook’s opening chapters on communication can be hard to get fired up about. But you can’t fight fire without a radio. It’s arguably the most important tool you’ve got.
After a few days, the crew marches onto the drill grounds, with their names written in marker on one-gallon jugs of water. It’s coat weather, chilly and drizzly. Instructors walk them through how they will unravel a fire hose, spray a hose, carry the hose full of water, extend a ladder, climb a ladder, blindly search a smoky building, talk on the radio like it’s a size-up of a real fire, tie a newly learned knot and drive a hammer against a weight until it inches all the way across a rail.
Each obstacle is hard in its own way. It’s timed. They take turns. Nguyen, in full gear, heaves a fire hose over his shoulder, for the first time in his life.
A past career as a furniture deliveryman, he says, gives him some advantages. He can maneuver a 10-drawer dresser up four flights of stairs, and he knows as well as anyone how apartments and houses are laid out. But he knows next to nothing about fire hoses. One day he borrows gear to do extra homework with a few other recruits. They take a hose to a park and practice, and practice, and practice.
Week 5, Live fire
An alarm wakes Katie Hereth, 27, each morning at 4:30. She gets two hours of down time a day to eat and study. She drives 30 minutes to her fire station in Marysville and another half-hour to the academy south of Everett.
At Marysville Pilchuck High School, she was a four-sport athlete. She studied marketing at Western Washington University. A single internship was enough to tell her she didn’t want to fritter away her life behind a desk. She was searching for something she found meaningful. She saw in firefighting the qualities she loved about sports — a tight-knit team, working toward one goal.
“I thought about being a teacher or a nurse,” she says. “I wanted to be someone that someone could look up to.”
She rode on a private ambulance and volunteered with Silvana fire crews. Eventually she was hired in her hometown. At times, she doubted she had the muscle to make this her career.
“I’m not naturally as strong as guys,” Hereth says. “So I don’t have the strength to have bad technique.”
She reads the textbook twice, and three times in places.
Today, the classroom is on fire. Torches spark pallets stacked in a shipping container off Machias Road. The box acts like a flaming apartment room that can burn over and over. Teams of three run hoses to beat back smoke, to see how the heat reacts to a blast of water. Dark clouds billow out a back window.
Crews split into groups. Forty yards away, teams rescue dummies from a four-story building. Every two weeks, recruits rotate to practice techniques like the crooked lean — a two-person, knee-stepping spider-grip on a flowing hose — with new partners.
Teachers are here to learn, too. They found some things could be taught in a better order, for the next academy in the fall. For example, an early lesson showed recruits how to put on air masks. But when air got low in a drill, they realized recruits hadn’t been told what to do.
Most instructors have gone through recent promotions. These are their dress rehearsals as supervisors. They run through drills with recruits, exercise with them and find out who excels under pressure.
“We want them to be curious,” says Joe Hughes, a company officer with South County Fire. “We want them to learn and, hey, fail. This is the time to fail.”
Week 7, Search and rescue
“Hit! Hit! Hit! Hit! Hit! Hit!”
Sixty beats per minute, recruits hammer at a block of wood that’s shoved like a sliding lock into a green metal door frame. These are good props, says District 7 Lt. Joe Basta. They act like heavy-duty doors, and sometimes you have to break locks to rescue people.
“There’s really not a trick to it,” he says. “It’s about getting leverage. It’s like a battle. You start at the bottom. You create a little tiny space. Get your ax in there. Now you save what progress you’ve made.”
You use that leverage to pop the doors wide. Firefighters swing metal spikes that clang against the locks in rhythm.
Contrast it with another lesson that looks like preschool. Basta built mock chainsaws out of PVC pipe, with sticks of chalk at the end. Recruits navigate across markings on the ground, practicing how to cut good holes in a flat rooftop.
“It’s almost like a ballet, isn’t it?” Basta says. “Everyone has their assignment.”
Once they’re ready, recruits in blinding orange safety pants stomp across a 3-foot-tall roof made of plywood. Some slap the ground in front of them with a trash hook, a tool like a garden hoe. Others slice into the wood. The volume of Basta’s voice rises and falls, as the chain saws buzz on and off.
“See them pounding down? That’s to make sure the roof is stable,” Basta says. “Then they cut these small little holes. Imagine this is Lowe’s, a huge building with a flat roof. You want to see where the smoke is coming out, because your goal with ventilation is to cut as close to the fire as possible.”
A fog machine floods the miniature Lowe’s. It’s not real smoke, but it gets the idea across. Steam shoots out like they’re cutting Christmas turkeys.
Instructors explain: If a fire breaks out in a building, it climbs to the ceiling or attic first because heat rises. It mushrooms and banks down the walls, filling rooms with toxic gas, smoke and flames. It suffocates and burns people, and makes it hard to find the seat of the fire. So ladder companies climb to the roof and rip into it to let heat dissipate. That gives the firefighters a better chance to find victims, find the fire and extinguish it.
First, saws make an inspection cut, a square three-by-three feet. They have to read the beams. Imagine you’re going to butcher a pig. If you know what the skeleton looks like, you know if you’re between the ribs or you’re in the pelvis.
Crews crisscross the plywood using saws to cut tiny triangles called smoke indicator holes, to ensure they’re not in a spot directly over the fire. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs. You do not want to look back and see the trail has turned into shooting flames.
Week 13, In review
At the end of each day, Dowell calls his wife in Chelan to tell her what he learned.
This week, it’s review. He’s splitting the doors of a van with the Jaws of Life. Other recruits hack windshields of totaled cars with axes. South County firefighter Dave Erickson, who goes by “Bronco,” leans over a steering wheel to show everyone how to shut off a car alarm.
“Good luck finding this —” he says, clutching a small black button — “when everything and his brother is scattered over broken glass and sandwiches and Beanie Babies.”
The recruits slash apart stubborn seat belts, shear through pillars along windows and study the guts of the engine.
“These are the basics, right?” Erickson says. “It’s the bread and butter. After this, you can build on it. Every wreck you come to is going to be different and have different challenges.”
Across the grounds, Hereth screws together a nozzle made for spraying foam. She gets it mostly right, but forgets to check the rubber gaskets, and an instructor tells her he pulled them out.
By the last few weeks, Hereth stopped getting sore, either because she was tougher or numb. A few recruits have dropped 30-plus pounds, from constant exercise and just walking around in bunker gear all day.
Outside of class, she has missed milestones in friends’ lives, she says, like babies and weddings.
Strangers have come up to her when they see she’s a firefighter, to say their daughter wants to fight fires, too.
“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you can do it!’ And the moms are like, ‘Yeah, see? You can do anything.’”
Bagpipes and drums lead the recruits, two-by-two, into Marysville Pilchuck’s auditorium. Hereth takes a seat at stage right among the 25 male recruits, in the row behind Bates, Dowell and Nguyen. Young firefighters far back in the audience hold beeping radios to their ears. Doors are open to sunlight on a warm Saturday. In a speech on behalf of the class, Bates says the recruits are here today because of the patience and support of their families.
“Each of us understands it’s very difficult on you,” he says.
Graduates are called to cross the stage, grouped by fire department: one from Arlington, five from Everett, three from Lake Stevens, three from Marysville, six from Monroe, one from Snohomish, seven from South County Fire. When Dowell’s turn arrives, his wife Jamie pins a new badge on him. Instructors surprise him by naming him the top graduate, Top Whip.
After it’s over — and everyone has shaken hands, hugged their moms, snapped pictures — Hereth says goodbyes on the steps outside. She reflects on who she was 14 weeks ago: more timid, never wanting to make a mistake.
“But people notice you trying hard, as opposed to being afraid,” she says. “The worst thing that can happen is you’ll mess up and learn from it.”
Dowell sees Nguyen in a doorway. They hug. They’re tired, but ready to report to their fire stations in two days. Every week has brought a new struggle. Nguyen says that will be true for the rest of his career.
“But being able to learn as I go through it, growing as a person, making people proud and my department proud — it means everything.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.