Digital alarms chimed as firefighter recruits and trainers from across the Virginia Peninsula activated their oxygen tanks. Thick grey and black smoke billowed from a nearby concrete block building behind a fire station in Newport News Thursday.
This is what Williamsburg’s newest recruits live and breathe for: taking control of chaos to save lives and property.
“To me, in the military, you get a lot of camaraderie and definitely a sense of purpose,” Jason Waldman said. “I feel like firefighting is an easily translatable thing. You still have that camaraderie and sense of purpose.”
Waldman, a 38-year-old retired Navy sailor, said he always thought about joining a fire department.
About four years ago that opportunity arose. As Waldman realized his Navy career would come to a close when he hit 20 years, he began working with the Hampton Fire Department as a volunteer, he said.
Now he stands with three other recruits; William Fernald, Ryan Johansen and Benjamen Morrison training for the day in early 2019 when they can join the ranks of Williamsburg’s fire department.
While the quartet waits, Fire Chief Pat Dent and Battalion Chief Robert Washington have made sure they’re put through the wringer.
The 16-week course at the Hampton Roads Recruit Fire Academy starts with classroom work on the theories and methods of firefighting. It takes about six weeks before recruits take the skills they learned in the classroom and apply them at the hands-on training facility, according to Dent.
Flames from a simulated flashover-fire licked their helmets as the recruits sat suited up in a modified steel shipping container, Dent said.
“The fire rolls over their heads,” Dent said. “That gives them an experience that, to be honest, they might not ever see in their career, but it does give them the experience so they know what to look for.”
Teaching and learning
Dent has extensive experience training firefighters — first at Newport News and even today he occasionally teaches at the firefighter academies, he said.
“I’ve always had a passion for training,” Dent said. “I was excited when I had the opportunity to come here and you get a lot of satisfaction when you see people who had absolutely no experience train and become firefighters.”
The academy in Newport News is part of a regional training program, Dent said. Firefighters from Williamsburg, James City and York counties train alongside peers from Hampton and Newport News.
“The regionalism helps us,” Dent said. “Especially one of the smaller localities like Williamsburg, we’re able to share resources, instructors and equipment to conduct one of these academies instead of Williamsburg having the burden ourselves to conduct an academy.”
The regional program has been in place since 1979, Dent said. As departments across the Peninsula cooperate with mutual-aid agreements, the academy is often the first place firefighters meet the peers they’ll work with during their career.
The program also saves localities a lot of hassle, Dent said.
After they pooled the cost of creating the facility years ago, fire departments from participating cities and counties have been able to rotate instructors, equipment and medic squads in case there are injuries during live-fire drills.
The job is dangerous.
In 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported 87 firefighters died across the United States while on duty.
In 2016, more than 24,000 firefighters across the country were injured on the job, according to FEMA.
Every bit of training is important for survival, Washington said.
“If you look at the hose and the way it’s shaped,” Washington said. “Coming from one direction it’s going to be shaped a certain way so you can blindly, in the dark, in heat, know ‘I’m on my way out’ or ‘I’m on my way in.’ ”
But the training programs are just the foundation of the knowledge new recruits will use on the job.
“When they get out of the academy they’re going to come out on the floor,” Washington said. “We’ve got to make sure they’ve retained what they learned.”
“There’s still a learning process to get them familiar with all of our apparatus,” Dent said. “That can take six to eight months.”
As Waldman has worked past the halfway point of the course, he said he looks forward to fulfilling a lifelong desire just four months after he retired from the Navy.
“It’s something I had grown up thinking I’d wanted to do, being a firefighter,” Waldman said. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Until graduation, Waldman will train for the day he works alongside other firefighters on the Williamsburg Fire Department.
“Yesterday and the day before, we did something called the flash-over simulator,” Waldman said. “Anything that exposes us to the actual fire element, the heat and the dangerous stuff that we’ll be expected to go to is my favorite. It reminds you of what it is that you’re doing. It’s going to get hot. It’s going to be a lot of work, but if you can handle that you’re going to be OK.”
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.