Forged in Flames

Maegan Mitchell
Staff Writer

The KC Fire Academy is certified and well recognized. Currently the students have completed the first three weeks of the academy with nine more weeks to go. 

Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Garrett Ballard, left, and Zack Smith high-five after completing a training exercise. KC Fire Academy students learn to put their lives in coworkers’ hands and become a family.
Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Garrett Ballard, left, and Zack Smith high-five after completing a training exercise. KC Fire Academy students learn to put their lives in coworkers’ hands and become a family.

Mike Fennell, lead instructor and 30-year Longview firefighter now retired, strives to teach the men and women who attend to learn how to work together as a team and create certain tasks that mirror those of a real station.

“Here at KC we strive to put out the best firefighters possible,” he said.

He requires the students to do certain tasks at the end of each day, such as emptying the trash and vacuuming the floors.

The Texas Commission of Fire Protection mandates that during the course of these three months each student must complete 470 hours of training. The students are at school from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, even some Saturdays, and are required to attend classes as well as run drills.

At the beginning of each course, Fennell divides his students into different engine companies, similar to a real fire station’s shift groups, to help them learn teamwork.

“They learn to laugh together, cry together, sleep together and bleed together,” he said.

Each student at the KC Fire Academy is unique in his/her own way, but Chuck Clemens is by far the most nontraditional. At 51-years-old, Clemens is the oldest student in the academy.

After high school he was given the opportunity to enter into a fire academy, but didn’t pursue it. This opportunity came around again and he has more drive now than ever before. Many of his friends are firefighters which lead to the rekindling of his interest in becoming one himself.

Due to his age, Clemens will not be able to hire on with a station after completion of this course because each station has an age cap, but this isn’t stopping him.

Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Gabriell Wise prepares her SCBA gear to be worn during step two.
Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Gabriell Wise prepares her SCBA gear to be worn during step two.

Though Clemens believes firefighting is much harder than an 8-5 job, he is unrelenting. He is determined to serve his community. After graduation, Clemens plans to become a safety officer with OSHA certifications as well as fire certifications and volunteer in his own time. His favorite part of the training exercises thus far is Rescue Randy, a 185-pound dummy that simulates the rescuing of an unconscious victim.

This dummy helps the students learn to remove a victim from any situation that the real-life scenarios may throw their way. Clemens believes that this class is not only one that helps build individual strengths, but also the ability to develop strong bonds, turning coworkers into a second family.

“This is a brotherhood and a sisterhood. You leave the station together and come back together,” Clemens said. His pride in his accomplishments is evident.

Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Students from Engine Company 3, from left, Sean Bassham, Ryan Baird, Chuck Clemens, Ty Ottaberry and Gary Rai walk to step three of a four-part obstacle to drag Rescue Randy, Rescue Reggie and five hoses over a length of approximately 50 yards in less than two minutes and 30 seconds.
Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Students from Engine Company 3, from left, Sean Bassham, Ryan Baird, Chuck Clemens, Ty Ottaberry and Gary Rai walk to step three of a four-part obstacle to drag Rescue Randy, Rescue Reggie and five hoses over a length of approximately 50 yards in less than two minutes and 30 seconds.

Among the students are four individuals who came a very long way to attend this academy. Jeff Adamo, class president, drove approximately 2,450 miles from Vancouver, Canada. At 29 years of age, Adamo has already worked for his hometown fighting wildfires for six years. He felt that the KC Fire Academy was the next step in his career and was drawn here because he has a very strong interest in structural fires. Adamo’s favorite part of his training is the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus drills. SCBA drills are conducted in order to condition and build stamina for the soon-to-be firefighters as they are required to put on 40-50 pounds of safety gear.

When Adamo returns home, he plans to work for the Vancouver Fire Department. Like his classmate, Adamo believes that this course brings each student into a brother-sister bond.

“It’s a brotherhood and because there are women, a sisterhood. Everyone has your back and you have everyone else’s backs,” Adamo said. “It’s hard to compare this job to any other normal job because you have your partners’ as well as victims’ lives in your hands. You essentially look after one another the way siblings would.”

Gabriell Wise, 19, is the only female attending the academy this semester. As a little girl she would ride along with her father, uncle and brothers to many fire scenes and sit in the truck to observe. She has always been like one of the guys so it feels normal to be the only female.

“It is harder for me than the guys, but I have no plans to quit. The guys are very good at encouraging me and we all feel like family,” she said.

She has volunteered in Hawkins, her hometown, for approximately two years and has had the same type of relationships with her coworkers that she has here.

Recently, Wise attended the A&M SCBA training camp and felt that the KC Fire Academy was the next step because it is much more in-depth.

Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Chuck Clemens, 51, carries a hose toward the finish line in the SCBA training drill at the KC Fire Academy training field.
Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Chuck Clemens, 51, carries a hose toward the finish line in the SCBA training drill at the KC Fire Academy training field.

Wise said she has an opinion when it comes to her favorite drill.  “Well, Rescue Randy is not my friend,” she said, jokingly.

Her long-term goal is to be on a large city fire department.

“I love volunteering in my hometown, but I want to be in a big city. The population in Hawkins is like 1,200 people, so I want to go somewhere like Tyler,” she said.

She eventually wants to be an arson investigator, a specialized firefighter that is called to a scene when an intentional fire is suspected. This certification will require her to go to EMT school as well as the police academy.

In addition to the on-site academy, students can become certified online. Students are required to read chapters and pass online tests in order to attend the two-week on-site portion of this course. Fire Academy director Ronnie Gothard, teaches these students all of the skills the state requires to become a certified firefighter.

The Texas Commission of Fire Protection has certain requirements and expectations of each fire academy in Texas, all of which KC meets or exceeds.

At the end of this three-month course, all students are required to take a test to become certified which will make them eligible to hire on with any fire department of their choosing.

Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Zach Smith, Jeff Adamo and Jonathan Mize race to complete step one.
Randi Vinson-Davis/THE FLARE || Zach Smith, Jeff Adamo and Jonathan Mize race to complete step one.

The KC Fire Academy is very well spoken of, drawing on average 7-12 students from Canada each year.

“Students come from all over and we are thankful and proud of that,” said Jason Barnes, instructor.

Many things are expected of each student, such as completion of safety drills, Personal Protective Equipment drills, SCBA drills completed under one minute, dragging and unrolling hoses as well as live fire week. Each one of these drills has its own purpose and teaches the students how to conduct themselves in live events like rescue and hazard situations.

In addition to the academy teaching so many skills and producing firefighters, graduates learn two important things: trust and teamwork. Over the course of just three months, these men and women learn to put their lives into their coworkers’ hands and become a family. To some, even Rescue Randy feels like a brother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *