Capt. Steve Schultz cringed Thursday as he watched a recruit drive an ambulance over a simulated pedestrian. It was the final leg of the Frederick County training facility’s emergency driver’s course.
“Timmy’s going to the trauma center!” Schultz announced with a laugh as he walked over to pick up the chunk of plywood. He placed the wood back up against the row of orange traffic cones, so the stick figure drawn on one side faced the next recruit in line.
Taking a break from the heavy classroom focus of the last few weeks, the recruits of firefighter class 21 were excited to get behind the wheels of some of the department’s ungainly E-450 ambulances.
At least, they were excited before the lesson began.
“For a lot of these guys, the only experience they’ve ever had is behind the wheel of a Camry or a Honda Accord,” Schultz said with a chuckle. “For them, they’re going to feel like they’re being launched off the deck of an aircraft carrier. They don’t think about the different dimensions of the vehicle, the size and the added weight.”
As recruits complete the academy’s basic Emergency Vehicle Operator’s Course, the goal is to have them more comfortable with the ambulances, said Lt. Bob McCaa, one of the academy’s instructors.
Recruits who wish to go on to drive the larger, specialty fire vehicles used by the division can pursue separate certifications for those specific vehicles after graduating from the academy, McCaa said.
A commercial driver’s license and even, depending on the type of vehicle, a class A license and a technician’s rank might be required to drive some specialty vehicles, such as tiller trucks, he said.
“But that’s not a requirement for employment,” McCaa said. “There are individuals who have been employed here for 15 or 20 years who don’t have a commercial driver’s license, who don’t drive the fire apparatus.
“The recruits get experience driving ambulances here at the academy because, during their probationary period after graduating, that is one of the requirements for their employment,” McCaa said.
During their yearlong probationary period, new firefighters must complete five emergency and 10 nonemergency responses as ambulance drivers, said Capt. Lenne Stolberg, the commander in charge of the training academy for the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services.
Probationary firefighters will be directly observed on these runs by their field training officers, who will judge their performance before letting them drive the ambulances on their own.
“If we notice any discrepancies within those five [emergency responses], then we’ll hold them and extend that probationary period in order for them to get some more experience,” Stolberg said.
“We demand more from them here probably than they would get somewhere else,” he said. “Because these cones here, they represent a pedestrian, or someone’s parked car, someone’s mailbox. So we don’t want them to have any problems coming out of here.”
Prior to last week, Michael Semelsberger’s driving experience was limited mostly to getting around in his own vehicle.
With that in mind, the recruit was all ears when Battalion Chief David Barnes walked up to give him a rundown of the second phase of the driving course. For that, recruits were tasked with weaving in and out of a line of cones, first moving forward, then driving backwards.
“If you lose sight of a barrel, and have no idea where it is, what should you do?” Barnes asked.
“Stop and readjust,” Semelsberger replied, his eyes flicking ahead to the line of barrels.
After a solid start, the recruit accidentally took one of the early turns on the reverse side of the course a bit too wide, throwing off his turn radius for the remainder of the run and quickly drawing Barnes’ attention.
Walking up to the driver’s side window for another pep talk, Barnes was patient and forgiving, telling Semelsberger not to worry so much.
After reviewing the exercise and giving Semelsberger a few tips for his next run, the instructor was ready to send the recruit off to the straightaway section of the course where Schultz — and Timmy — awaited.
“OK,” Semelsberger said, gripping the wheel as he prepared to accelerate into the braking section. “I am not going to hit it this time!”
Shooting forward, Semelsberger laid off the accelerator as he passed a line of three cones on his right. Then, he quickly began stabbing the brakes as the next milestone, a line of four cones to his left, came level with the front bumper.
Weaving ever so slightly, Semelsberger’s eyes flicked away from the line in front of him for a fraction of a second to adjust, just long enough for the final line of cones — and Timmy — to disappear under the hood with a sickening crunch.
“I, uh, I definitely hit something there,” Semelsberger said sheepishly, hanging his head slightly as he pulled through the final curve.
As if on cue, the sound of Schultz’s maniacal laughter reached the cabin of the ambulance.
“Sorry, Timmy,” Semelsberger said, shaking his head as Schultz and the rest of the instructors came into view out the ambulance’s passenger’s side window, securing the wooden figure back in its place.
Schultz was all business again by the time the recruits broke for lunch a few minutes later.
“We expect that sort of thing to happen here on the training course,” the captain said. “Here, any students that are having problems, we can go back and help them with some extra instruction and practice. We can’t make up for that during an emergency.”