When it comes to turning up the heat to forge firefighters, the Texas Engineering Extension Service Fire Recruit Academy carries the torch. Since 1971, TEEX’s Recruit Academy has trained more than 3,500 certifiable firefighters. The school is based in College Station but graduates are working in fire departments all over the globe: in the United States, Canada, Australia, Spain, Korea, Kuwait, Brazil and more.
Academy cadets experience more than just classroom instruction; they will spend the final two weeks out on Brayton Fire Field fighting fires and putting their classroom knowledge to the test.
“It’s a calling,” says Cary Roccaforte, TEEX Fire Academy’s training manager, about those who choose the profession. “Chief Rock” as his cadets and colleagues address him, offers this advice to anyone thinking of choosing a vocation that is dedicated to the service of others: “It has nothing to do with money. You have to have a passion for it in order to be happy doing it.”
The Recruit Academy is a 12-week program, and each class consists of 45 to 50 students. Entry into the academy requires that students be at least 18-years-old, have a physical from their doctor and have earned either their high school diploma or GED. The age of recruits in the recent Class 135 range from 18- to 40-years-old.
Chief Rock explains that diversity of all types is not uncommon at TEEX training schools. “People from all over come here to train because they know about our commitment to excellence,” he says. Many of the recruits are from Canada because the TEEX program has such a strong reputation with our neighbors to the north. Chief Rock says all TEEX instructors support continuing higher education, not just in firefighting, urging students to get all they can from college. “As much as one-third of the graduates will not get a job doing firefighting,” Chief Rock says.
Having been invited to see Class 135 in action up close, Chief Rock drives us through Brayton Fire Field in a golf cart, chatting about the Fire Academy and the class of cadets working on burn simulations nearby. The heat is already stifling, and we are at least a football field’s length away from where the cadets are executing their 10-week-old firefighting skills.
While we drive closer to the simulation site, Chief Rock informs me that bunker gear can weigh anywhere from 35 to 45 pounds, and the fires within the props can reach temperatures close to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The thought of a triple-digit summer day makes most Texans sweat, but the temperatures these cadets endure during training can be ten times hotter than a normal June day.
Coming close to the burn simulation evokes an unexpected bout of terror. Flames are licking at the sky, and there are recruits in bright yellow bunker gear approaching a blazing inferno that looks something like the cabin of a small, private plane. My terror abates as recruit Robert Cope wryly notes, “When others are running out, we are the idiots running in.”
Cope, who spent time in the Navy, says he missed the camaraderie of being on a team. He has come from Lubbock to College Station to train in the Fire Academy, but his is far from the longest journey – 26 of the 45 recruits are from Canada, another is from Hawaii, and still another is from Saudi Arabia.
A question that comes to mind watching the controlled mayhem is whether or not the adrenaline rush is a big part of the attraction of the firefighting profession. Cope and another cadet, Arthur Wong, both have opinions on the matter.
“I’m not going to lie; adrenaline helps,” says Cope. “I think a lot of the guys are adrenaline junkies.”
Wong, from Canada, disagrees. “For me, it is about the civil service and camaraderie. When you go in, your first concern is the safety of the guys going with you.”
With the demo fire successfully extinguished, it’s my turn to suit up in some bunker gear. The gear is heavy, and I immediately begin to sweat. Chief Rock tells me that recruits are required to gear up in a minute; it takes me at least five. The consequence for each violation is push-ups; someone’s life may depend on hitting the speed mark.
It occurs to me that those recruits who the trainee has self-deprecatingly referred to as “idiots running in” are what most of us define as “heroes.” – by Megan Roiz
For more information about the Fire Academy and other training divisions of TEEX, visit TEEX.com.