Ominous gray clouds fill the air. One can feel the blistering heat coming from the fire blazing inside an old car. The trees sway in the breeze but all feels still. Everyone watches in silence as the firefighter cadets holding the fire hose walk slowly toward the inferno in an attempt to put out the flames.
“Whether it’s a structure fire, a car wreck, or a medical call, [fires are] not all the same,” said Andy King, the director of the Tyler Junior College Fire Academy. “There’s always twists and turns that are thrown at us, and we have to try to figure out the best way to take care of the problem.”
Recently, cadets from TJC’s Fire Academy held their last day of field training, which tested everything the cadets have learned throughout their time at the academy. The cadets are able to put their new skills into action. They use bunker gear and self-contained breathing apparatus training to protect themselves from the effects of the fire they are fighting.
The cadets learn distinct firefighting skills the days before fighting fire. They learn about dumpster fires, car fires and propane fires. Then they also learn about structure fires and techniques to fight them.
King, who has more than 30 years of experience in fire services, explained as a firefighter one has to learn how to figure out problems because not every incident is the same.
“Being in the fire service, I know whenever I go to work I know what station I am reporting to besides that I don’t know what the next 24 hours are going to bring,” King said. He added every day brings something new. He said on some days “it may be a whole bunch of nothing, or it could be running into a burning building or it can be hanging off the side of a high rise. I could be down in a hole; it could be anything that could possibly come up.”
To prepare potential firefighters for this lifestyle and career, the TJC Fire Academy offers cadets training to receive an associate in Applied Science Degree and a certificate through Continuing Studies. The first TJC Fire Academy began nine years ago on Oct.11, 2011. TJC has two 13-week fire academy training sessions throughout the year.
Jeanine Grimes, administrative assistant of Police and Fire Academies, said “The fire academy teaches more than how to fight fire. They learn the value of teamwork. They learn from the first day of class to work together efficiently to accomplish a task.”
She adds as cadets work through the different units, they learn how to complete an assignment communicating with each other especially when they can’t see each other.
The TJC Fire Academy teaches a wide variety of skills. The skills range from becoming familiar with their Personal Protection Equipment and Self Contained Breathing Apparatus to extrication, rescue, ladders, ventilation, handling ropes and tying knots. Cadets learn about building construction incident management systems, how fire hoses work, the different types of water supplies and how fire behaves in different situations.
They also learn how to breach doors and make entry, how to preserve as much property as possible from damage. They learn a little about how to determine where a fire started and what caused it. They spend a week learning about hazardous materials and who to address in those situations. Then they spend the last week of instruction putting out multiple fires.
There are physical and mental hurdles cadets must get over if they want to complete the program successfully. Cadets must be physically fit and also have passing grades.
King said he knows a lot of people think the fire service is just kicking down doors, cutting holes in the roofs or just spraying water; however, that’s not the case.
“There is actually a ton of book knowledge that they have to understand before they can start kicking in doors or spraying water and stuff like that,” King said. “I tell people who apply to the academy, it’s not going to be easy. You are going to have to be on your A-game. You have got to study hard. You are going to be pushed physically, and if you want to be a part you have to push through it.”
As a first-time college student, Garrett Saenz knew he wanted to pursue firefighting as a career field because it runs in his blood and it is what he is called to do.
“Mom and dad were first responders and it is kind of those things that run in my blood,” Saenz said. He said his mom is a paramedic and his dad is a squad fire and police officer.
“The good Lord has given me a servant’s heart to help people out in the community,” Saenz added. “Just helping people is something that I have always been called to do and wanted to do, so I figured I have a little action at it and do some firefighting while I’m helping people.”
Saenz talked about what a day in the fire academy looks like. He said in the first weeks of school there is a lot of book work, and that it is also mentally challenging, “especially for someone like me because I am scared of heights and they make you do ladders and stuff like that. You definitely have to push yourself to overcome your fears,” Saenz said.
Similarly, Navy veteran Elizebeth Hammack spent seven years as a Naval Special Warfare Group 2 and gave her thoughts on the physical training completed while in the academy.
Hammack said she decided to become a firefighter because she feels firefighters have some of the same core values the Navy does.
“I just recently got out of the Navy and there was a lot of honor and pride with that work and courage and commitment,” Hammack said.
Hammack said she was tired of being deployed all of the time, so she decided to go back home and go to college.
“Once I got into college, I decided to go down a medical response path, and I found firefighting had the same core values as the Navy did, honor courage and commitment and I wanted to keep that same career field,” Hammack said.
Even though Hammack does intense workouts every day, she said the fire academy is still pretty tough.
“I do CrossFit every day,” Hammack said. “I thought that was pretty tough, but it is nothing compared to when you put the uniform on and the air pack and the helmet. It gets heavy.” The equipment adds about 50 pounds to your body, and Hammack said “you don’t realize until the end of the day how much work you have actually put in.”
Another feature of the TJC Fire Academy is its Bunk-in Program.
Saenz, originally from San Augustine, said one of the things that drew him to the TJC Fire Academy was the Bunk-in Program. Through this program, housing for TJC Fire Academy cadets is available. TJC has come together with several Smith County volunteer fire departments to institute this program for those who attend the academy from outside the Smith County area. The Bunk-in program allows cadets like Saenz to stay in Tyler for the duration of the academy, but it also offers other benefits.
“During that time, you can go on calls with the fire department whether it’s a fire, medical, wrecks or whatever it might be,” Saenz said. “But it is one of those things where you get self-experience. You get your foot in the door with people who have references and resources to reach out to.”
King said if anyone is looking for a rewarding career — something that is satisfying both physically and mentally — then the fire service is something one should check out and it is for everybody.
“We’ve had males and females both. I know a lot of women think they can’t handle it, but I have had quite a few females come through and they have done very well,” King said.
Hammack had a few words for any females considering becoming a firefighter.
“I have been pretty athletic my whole entire life and that has helped me, but it is a lot more of a mental game,” Hammack said. “If a girl goes into this thinking she can’t do it because she doesn’t think she’s physically strong enough, she can get there.”
She said it’s like studying for a test, the more you spend time studying the better your grade will be.
For full details about the TJC Fire Academy and how to join, click herehttps://www.tjc.edu/info/20188/continuing_studies/161/fire_academy or call 903-510-3205.
“If you are willing to put in the work, it is definitely something to check out, and within a year, you could be in a career that you’re making good money, benefits and have a good retirement after 25 to 30 years,” King said.
King added if people aren’t sure what they want to do as a career they should check out the Fire Academy.
“It might be something you never realized you wanted to do, but may be the perfect fit for you,” King said.
As a firefighter having pride is more of a way of life. Saenz said to him pride is taking heart and doing your absolute best in what you do.
“You’re giving it 110% no matter what it is,” Saenz said. “If you are scared you know what, just keep going at it and take pride in what you’re doing.”
He suggests not to get into the fire service just for fame and glory, “do this because you really want to help somebody out in our world,” Saenz said. “You want to make someone else’s day better than it was before.”