Burning Passion: Fire academy student living out dream

Sydney Hammonds / THE FLARE || Chuck Clemens, 51, rekindled his dream of becoming a firefighter after more than 30 years.
Sydney Hammonds / THE FLARE || Chuck Clemens, 51, rekindled his dream of becoming a firefighter after more than 30 years.

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a series featuring the lives of non-traditional students. 

Staff Writer

Chuck Clemens has proved it is never too late in life to chase after a dream.

At 51 years old, Clemens is a father of six, ages ranging 6 to 36 years old, the grandfather of five and a loving husband of nine years.

Upon graduating from high school in his hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., Clemens was given the opportunity to hire on with the Phoenix Fire Department, but because he had the mindset of a typical 18-year-old, the drive just wasn’t there.

He soon found himself back in the walls of burning buildings when he became part of the Daingerfield Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, but there were a few obstacles along the way.

On March 19, 2012, while battling a structure fire that had spread to a carport, Clemens and two men were injured along with one other man who was trying to save them. Crushing three discs in his spine as well as breaking his ankle, Clemens was no longer able to fight fires.  Several weeks of walking on crutches with a broken back and one surgery later, he was back on his feet.

“The hardest part wasn’t walking on crutches, but instead the fact I couldn’t work fires. When I was able to come back, I didn’t think about my pain. When you’re helping others your pain becomes minimal,” Clemens said.

When Clemens returned to work for Daingerfield, several of his co-workers had attended KC Fire Academy and suggested he should enroll into the course. His response – “Why not?”

Despite his life-changing injuries, Clemens conducts himself as a student who maintains a 96 percent average and has more determination now than ever.

“It’s a passion – you have to have the drive to help people. That is something that can’t be taught,” Clemens said.

Most of the curriculum covered at the academy have been a refresher for Clemens. Everything he has learned leads up to the 12th week, consisting of live fire drills which, by this point, should be second nature.

“When the tones go off, you have to immediately know what to do – whether it’s a fire, medical or rescue call,” Clemens said.

In high school, he was a mediocre student who did only what it took to get by, but today Clemens is a much more ambitious student. He dedicates his all to every aspect of this academy.

“Being a C- student isn’t good enough here. You are learning how to save lives so you have to be fully knowledgeable,” Clemens said.

One of the biggest challenges Clemens has faced returning to school at such a nontraditional age is learning how to study again. The last time he was in school was 1980, so the way a student retains information, takes tests and covers material is quite different due to modern technology.

“I was at a disadvantage,” Clemens said. “It had been years since I studied, and most everyone here is straight out of high school. They already knew how to study effectively.”

The most enjoyable part for him is getting up early and doing his station duties. He also enjoys packing his sack lunches.

“The sack lunches I used to pack for my kids, I now pack for myself. Back to sack lunches,” Clemens said.

He also enjoys working out each night as he feels he has to do extra work to keep up with the pace of the younger guys.

The hardest part of the academy has been Rescue Randy, a 185 pound dummy that simulates an unconscious victim.

“My biggest struggle has been Rescue Randy, but I think I have overcome that. If I were to go out there and drag him today I could do it without a problem,” Clemens said. “I can’t say without any problem though because he is always going to wind you.”

When working on condition skills, Clemens has to try harder to keep up with the younger students.

“There are timed events that I have to get done in the same amount of time as the youngest 18-year-old guy has to,” Clemens said.

During this 12-week course, Clemens is staying at the Elderville/Lakeport Fire Station 3, where he earns his stay by doing common everyday chores. Even though it is not required, Clemens goes on calls with the other firefighters.

“When the tones go off, it’s in my blood. I’m standing at the truck ready to roll,” Clemens said.

Being the oldest student at the academy has earned him the title of “Father Time.” It was given to him because there is only one student who is older than his oldest child.

After completion of this 12-week course, Clemens hopes to hire on with a fire department, but there is only one problem. Most stations have an age cap of 36, meaning that after the age of 36 you cannot be hired to work for pay. If Clemens is unable to find a station that will accept his age, he will continue with his education in hopes of earning his OSHA certifications which will allow him to be a safety supervisor for many fields. He will also continue to work as a volunteer firefighter for his hometown.

Clemens attributes much of his success to his wife because without her most of it would not be possible.

“She has picked up 90 percent of the slack. She has a job and takes care of the house. She has been my biggest support,” Clemens said.

Whether it’s rolling hose, dragging Rescue Randy or keeping up with all of the youngsters, Clemens enjoys every aspect of the academy.

“Chuck is an outstanding, dedicated and hardworking student. He is more mature than most of them. He knows what he wants and he is going to go get it. I admire him for that,” said Mike Fennell, instructor.