Firefighter recruit Alexandra Biris grunted as she hit the pavement outside the burn building on the Frederick County Public Safety Training facility grounds Wednesday afternoon.
“Whew! All right! That was a good one!” the Frederick native and Mount St. Mary’s University graduate said as she rose to her feet, jumping up and down in excitement.
After giving herself a quick dust-off, Biris was sprinting back for the doorway with the cheerful exuberance of a kid in a candy store.
Watching her turn the corner, recruits Patrick Mangus and Sean Lillis could only shake their heads and laugh, amused by anyone so willing to play the role of the “victim” in a drill aimed at teaching firefighters how to rescue one of their own from a burning building.
A few minutes later, Biris was once again unceremoniously tossed through the open first-floor window into the waiting arms of her classmates.
While each recruit brings a different set of skills to the academy, Biris’ particular strengths led to her selection as one of Recruit Class 21’s three squad leaders, said Lt. Mike Webb, the class’s lead instructor.
“Early on, we identified that she was extremely motivated and driven to succeed,” Webb said. “Ability is one thing, but we can’t teach the motivation or desire to succeed, which she so obviously has.”
In the detailed notes he keeps on each of the recruits under his command, Webb drew particular attention to the effect Biris’ enthusiasm was having on the recruits in her squad and in the class as a whole.
A Linganore High School graduate who studied criminal justice and sociology at the Mount, Biris was working as a waitress at Madrones when her uncle, a career firefighter in Carroll County, persuaded her to apply for Recruit Class 20. While she didn’t make that class, Biris was among the first accepted into Class 21.
“This may sound cheesy, but I want to help our community,” she said. “I’ve lived in Frederick County my whole life and I just want to give every ounce of my being back to the community. I want to be there in your darkest hours, to be that person who says, ‘I’m not going to give up on you.’”
Drawing on her love of exercise as a devoted CrossFit participant, and an appreciation for teamwork learned playing rugby at the Mount, Biris also relies on support from her family to get through.
“I live with my grandparents and they’re very supportive because I’ll come kind of crawling through the door and I’ll hear, ‘Hey! How’s it going? Oh, you had another tough day?’” Biris said. “... They’ll always ask me about my day and tell me never to give up.”
While Jerry and Linda Koons, Biris’ grandparents, were initially concerned about her intended career path, they were comforted after attending the academy’s family night and learning about all the ways in which they could support their granddaughter.
Ultimately, Linda Koons said she wasn’t surprised by Biris’ career choice.
“I know with her being her, just being Alex, she loves the idea of helping people and I know she would only be happy helping people,” Linda Koons said.
In spite of all her motivation and family support network, Biris faced at least one potentially debilitating setback early on in the academy. During week four’s lessons on forcible entry techniques Dec. 30, Biris broke her index finger when she struck a door with an axehead.
While she didn’t notice the injury at first, Biris quickly found herself fighting for her spot in the academy after she was taken first to a physician, then to an orthopedic specialist to evaluate her injury.
“The safety officer went with me, Lt. [Keith] Hubble ... and he said if you have a metal splint on your hand, we might have to recycle you into the next class and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve worked so hard to get here, there’s no way I’m going out without a fight ...’” Biris recalled thinking.
A plastic splint caused Biris some concern, but the persistent recruit persuaded the specialist to allow her to continue.
“She said, ‘Well, as long as you take it easy on it, you can do full duty, but don’t be crazy, don’t be stupid,’” Biris said, remembering the specialist’s words of caution. “And I’m thinking, ‘Yes! Let’s get back out there!’”
Back at the burn building, Biris once again picked herself up after yet another toss from the ground-floor window.
Briefly flexing her hand to make sure her finger was still holding up even though the splint was removed several weeks ago, Biris jumped to attention as her instructor called her back into the building.
“Biris! Get back in here!” the instructor called. “Ready to go again?”
“Let’s go again!” Biris confirmed, pumping her arms as she headed back for the door.