While the recruits in Frederick County’s two most recent firefighter classes may find it hard to believe, it wasn’t too long ago that their instructors, lieutenants Mike Webb and Bob McCaa, were in their shoes.
Both Webb, the lead instructor of Class 21, and McCaa, who held the same responsibilities for Class 20, were graduates of Recruit Class 14, which began Jan. 2, 2008, and graduated in June of that year. McCaa and Webb, both of whom applied to the academy from outside the area, also shared a rental house with several classmates during their time at the academy.
“It was awesome,” McCaa said. “I mean, I had three other people living in the same house as me, on the same schedule, who knew exactly what I was going through and could provide some peer debrief at the end of the day, like, how hard it was that day or how mean that Stolberg guy was.”
The men exchanged a look, then broke out laughing, remembering Lt. Lenne Stolberg, one of their class’s tough-as-nails instructors.
Now a tough-as-nails captain, Stolberg was the man responsible for bringing both men back to the academy, eight years after their graduation, as instructors. When McCaa and Webb came onboard as recruit class commanders, Stolberg took on a new role as the recruit coordinator at the agency’s training division.
While neither Webb nor McCaa was particularly thrilled about being transferred away from responding to calls, it was a sense of solidarity, applied broadly to the fire service, that motivated both men to return.
“Now we’re putting 60 people through our system that, one day, they will be the leaders of our department,” Webb said. “We’re responsible for sending out that next generation. So I can’t go to bed at night, and I know Lt. McCaa can’t go to bed at night, knowing that we didn’t pour all of our blood, sweat and tears into making sure that they are the best fundamentally trained firefighter-EMTs that we can possibly produce in 28 short weeks.”
The idea of teaching the next generation was broached first with McCaa, but Webb wasn’t far behind.
Much like McCaa and others were on hand when Class 21 began their training in earnest, Webb stepped in to help teach the recruits in Class 20 even before Stolberg officially brought him in to lead Class 21.
Similarly, when McCaa takes on the role of lead instructor for Class 22 next week, Webb will likely continue to play a crucial role at the academy. Class 22 will kick off with “Family Night” on Monday. By the time Webb’s current class walks the stage for graduation June, 9, Class 22 will be in its seventh week.
Just as McCaa had Capt. Stolberg and Capt. Frank Malta to rely on when he took on his new role as an instructor, Webb was able to fall back on McCaa’s experience — and several booklets full of notes — when he took on a leadership role for Class 21.
“Up until that point, the largest shift I had run was me and seven others, so it was quite a jump,” Webb said. “You learn to become very specific and explicit with what you want done, versus what you say, because they want to do what’s right, but sometimes the end result is not what you imagined.”
As he spoke, several recruits lined up outside the door to the instructor’s office, standing quietly at attention for orders. Webb was all business, getting the recruits organized into smaller teams to tackle cleanup and some maintenance duties in the engine bay.
“In addition, task someone with taking one of the collapsible wheel trucks and cleaning it up,” Webb said. “There’s orange spray paint that I’ve sat out next to the radio room. Go ahead and take that up because we’re going to do a test run of spray-painting one of those fluorescent orange.”
“Yes, sir!” came the response as the recruits marched down the hall to carry out their orders.
Turning around, Webb nodded back toward the engine bay.
For inspiration, both Webb and McCaa found themselves looking back at Stolberg’s approach from almost a decade ago to inform their own teaching styles.
“He was an extraordinarily competent instructor. ... It was almost mechanical,” McCaa said. “For example, every time you asked a question he would repeat the question to make sure everybody heard it, provide an answer, and then confirm with the individual who had asked the question if they understood the answer. Every time.”
“It’s almost like he was well-disciplined or something,” Webb said with a laugh, referring to Stolberg’s background in the Marine Corps.
At the very least, both Webb and McCaa could easily relate to the recruits in their charge, even if they themselves were forced to play the role of hardened instructors.
Webb recalled one memorable episode from his and McCaa’s time at the academy when, in a moment of extreme distraction, McCaa said “Yes, ma’am” when Stolberg asked him a question.
“Our EMT instructor at the time was a woman, so we were all used to saying ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am,’ and then [Stolberg] came along and said something and I hit him with a ‘Yes, ma’am’” McCaa said, shaking his head with a smile of his own.
“Man, my heart just instantly sank,” McCaa said. “And he whirled around and said ... ‘You will not let that happen again!’”