Igniting into a wall of flame with a heavy whoosh, the metal-framed gas prop at Frederick County’s firefighter training facility sent a wall of heat washing over the two orderly lines of firefighter recruits standing nearby.
Dressed in their full protective gear — including heat-resistant turnout coats, helmets and self-contained breathing apparatus — the six recruits, organized into two lines of three recruits each, huddled side by side holding two hose lines before the inferno. Led by instructor Capt. Steve Schultz — wearing a distinct black helmet for easy recognition — the two lines opened up their hoses and began a slow, cautious approach to the prop.
“They call that ‘the Texas two-step,’” said instructor Bernie Studds, smiling as he pointed out the way both lines took a single, deliberate step toward the fire, in unison, before stopping and resetting their stances, continuing all the while to lay down two steady streams of water on the blaze.
Studds, a fire medic III who has been with Recruit Class 21 since their emergency medical technician training in week 12, quickly outlined the planned attack on the fire.
“We start from a distance using streams, but you start opening up your pattern as you get closer into a wide fog pattern to disperse the vapors,” Studds said, even as Schultz had the recruits doing the same, the streams of water from the hoses switching into a spray. “It can act as a sort of ‘water curtain’ to contain the fire.”
Sure enough, the once towering ball of flame shrunk and receded under the intersecting sprays, allowing the two lines to approach even closer, step by step. To end the training scenario, the lines did the same procedure, only in reverse, before another set of instructors shut off the prop entirely.
Now in its 25th week — it was the end of week 24 when the last recruits finished training with the gas prop on Friday — the class of firefighters was preparing to tackle a solid week’s worth of live fire drills to close out their firefighter II class.
“So they’ve got one more exam to take, for firefighter II, then it’s about a week’s worth of administrative work before graduation June 9,” said Capt. Lenne Stolberg.
Of the 11 recruits in Class 21 who had to take the national registry exam at the close of the EMT portion of the academy in April, two failed and were given a single chance to retake the test, which must be passed in order to advance in the academy, Stolberg said.
Both remaining recruits passed the retest last week, cementing the academy’s perfect success rate under the newer standards of the exam, Stolberg said.
And while a week of administrative work may seem dull compared with a six-month academy that has included everything from quelling vehicle and building fires to setting up rope harnesses in the woods and Friday’s gas prop exercise, the 23 recruits in the class will have a few more action-packed days left before graduation.
Next week, the recruits will drive to a neighboring jurisdiction where they will suit up in protective gear to sit through a “flashover” simulator at a different county’s training facility, Stolberg said.
Then, on June 2, a week before graduation, the academy will invite the recruits’ families back to the training grounds for what the instructors playfully refer to as “Hell Night.” During that event, the recruits suit up to run through an entire day’s worth of live-fire training exercises so their relatives can see what they’ve learned.
In the meantime, the instructors were doing everything in their power to make sure the recruits in Class 21 — as well as those in Class 22, which entered its fifth week on Monday — remain safe and healthy.
Recruits began classes earlier in the morning last week as temperatures rose into the 90s, with Studds keeping an eye on the thermometer throughout the gas prop exercise Friday.
“Yesterday, for example, we reported at 6 o’clock and by 1 o’clock in the afternoon we were wrapping up because we were getting to the point where it’s too hot for us to continue working them outside,” Studds said. “Today, we’re currently at 72 degrees, which is ‘white flag’ conditions, meaning there are no restrictions.”
Sure enough, a white flag hung from the flagpole over the training grounds, positioned in a spot clearly visible from most points of the facility.
As the recruits were wrapping up their lines, at 8:41 a.m., the temperature had reached 75 degrees and, when the exercise officially concluded at 8:50 a.m., the “feels like” temperature had reached 77 degrees, Studds announced after consulting his notes.
“So in a matter of less than 10 minutes it changed two degrees, which was enough to bring us into ‘green flag’ conditions,” Studds said, keying in his radio to announce the change to his fellow instructors.
In green conditions, the instructors must make sure the recruits are kept to a ratio of 75 percent work, 25 percent rest for outdoor exercises. As the temperatures increase through yellow and reg flag conditions, the work level decreases and the mandatory rest time lengthens until the “feels like” temperature hits 91 degrees, Studds said.
“Once we’ve reached 91 degrees, we’re under ‘black flag’ conditions and, at that point, we cease all of our outdoor activities,” Studds said.
A similar system is in place in fire stations across the county, with the notable difference being firefighters in the field don’t have the option to not suit up when duty calls, Studds said.