Recruit Austin Nelson fidgeted in his dress uniform as he prepared to take the stage Friday evening at the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services’ graduation ceremony at Frederick Community College.
Having endured six months of grueling physical training, live fire scenarios, and exam after exam on everything from advanced first aid to forcible building entry methods, Nelson was having trouble believing it was all coming to an end. Falling back on his role as platoon leader for Recruit Class 21, Nelson kept glancing over at his instructors, lieutenants Mike Webb and Bob McCaa, who stood talking with their peers nearby.
“We all came in joking around like, ‘Are they going to have blocks for us to carry up onstage?’” Nelson said with a laugh, referring to the cinder blocks he and his 23 fellow recruits were made to carry around the county’s public safety training facility whenever the instructors noticed a mistake or to correct some perceived fault. “Like, ‘OK, who messed up in rehearsals?’”
Elsewhere in the lobby of the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater, recruit Patrick J. Morin said he was also having trouble reconciling the end of the academy, even as he was looking forward to beginning his first shift at Fire Station 23 in Urbana on Sunday.
“It’s a good feeling. It’s a little surreal, I think, because I’m not quite sure what’s coming next, but I’m looking forward to it, to getting out there, so it’s a little nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time,” Morin said.
Morin scored the highest overall scores on all of the academy’s exams, earning him the designation of valedictorian of Recruit Class 21.
While honored, Morin said he was nervous about speaking in front of the class’s family members and friends. The 29-year-old former volunteer firefighter said he put a lot of thought into finding the right words to express how he and his fellow recruits felt, which was difficult because they came from different backgrounds with different life experiences.
While many recruits, like Morin and Nelson, had previous experience as volunteer firefighters, others, such as Alexandra Biris, one of the class’s three squad leaders, came into the academy without any formal firefighting experience.
“You always have this little voice in the back of your head that says you can’t do something. You’re always going to have that, but you have to silence it,” Biris said. “I had that all the time. ... That little voice was telling me, ‘I really don’t think you can do this, you should probably quit now.’”
A CrossFit and exercise enthusiast, Biris said she was always motivated by the physical aspects of the academy, but struggled somewhat with the frequent exams and during site ops exercises during weeks six and seven back in January when the recruits learned about rope rescue techniques such as high- and low-angle rescues.
Through the toughest trials, Biris said she was always motivated to succeed by Webb, the class’s lead instructor.
“He said, ‘Look, as long as you’re giving me your 100 percent, I’m going to make sure you get across that stage,’” Biris said, remembering Webb’s encouragement to the class. “He held up his side of the bargain, and so did I. So, because of him, I’m crossing the stage today.”
For Webb, who had never led a recruit class before taking on the role in December, Friday’s graduation ceremony was bittersweet.
“I’ve never been assigned a shift before. They were, in a lot of ways, my first shift,” Webb said, looking back. “So it was pretty cool to watch them transform from 23 different types of people into what they were when they walked up onstage Friday. It was great to be a part of that and have a front-row seat.”
While he will remain on at the academy to assist McCaa with the instruction of Recruit Class 22 — now in its ninth week — Webb plans to transfer back to shift work July 8, which is right around the time the recruits in Class 21 will be considered full staff positions.
“For the next four weeks they’re riding as extras,” Webb said. “But that will change right around the time I transfer back, so, depending on where I’m assigned and to what shift, who knows? I might end up being one of their supervisors again.”
The first group of recruits began their first shifts on what the fire service designates as B-shift, which began Saturday at 6 a.m. After a 24-hour shift, B-shift was relieved by C-shift at 6 a.m. Sunday, followed in turn by A-shift at 6 a.m. Monday, Webb said. After each 24-hour shift, the shift just relieved gets 48 hours off, Webb said.
Two of the recruits in Class 21 were assigned to D-shift, which operates on a slightly different schedule, working four, 12-hour shifts instead of one 24-hour shift per cycle, Webb said.
After the ceremony, Nelson breathed a sigh of relief, his shoulders slumping ever so slightly under his dress uniform in between posing for photos with his classmates and shaking hands with well-wishers.
A wide grin spreading across his face, Nelson watched his former classmates, now all proud probationary firefighters, filing out of the theater, ready to face the challenges ahead. Even at the end of his experience, Nelson couldn’t help but look back at the beginning.
“Opening that letter and saying, ‘Oh, my God! I have a job with the fire department!’ What I’ve wanted to do for so long, and then to be here, six short months later, to actually have the badge pinned on my chest and to be able to walk across the stage? That is just, absolutely ...” he paused, at a loss for words.
Nelson laughed, shaking his head.
“I just feel great!” he said. “I’m excited, I’m looking forward to what is in store for me in the next 25 years.”