The sky is starless and the air is bitterly cold when a fire truck pulls into an East Greenwich driveway. Experienced firefighters in plainclothes pass out equipment as recruits shift under the unfamiliar weight of their air tanks. They line up in perfect formation as their superior barks orders, just as smoke becomes visible from the trailer behind him. Moments later, the recruits rush in, finding the source of the smoke and shooting water at the flames.
No one is in danger. The burning building is actually the burn trailer at the East Greenwich Fire Department, and the small fire is contained to a barrel. But that doesn’t quell the recruits’ adrenaline. This is the first time they have been exposed to open flames – a milestone in their 18-week training to become a member of the Johnston Fire Department.
“This is their first live fire situation. It will give them a good idea of the real thing, especially with the smoke,” says Battalion Chief Richard Boehm, watching the next wave of recruits line up.
Boehm is director of the department’s Division of Training and Safety and oversees the town’s Fire Academy. Academies are run when staffing demands it, usually every four years or so.
Johnston last ran an academy in 2008 and now is looking to fill spots in their currently understaffed ranks. The department is down 10 firefighters, though how many new employees they will ultimately hire remains unclear.
In order to be eligible for the training academy, recruits must pass an entrance exam and then be vetted through a town interview. They also must have their EMT license by the time the department makes an offer for employment. Most recruits have already completed that requirement.
“Between the interview and the testing, we picked the top 14,” Boehm said. Seven of the 14 recruits are from Johnston.
Training began on Sept. 5 and will wrap up on Jan. 5, at which time the class will take their final exam, the last step in qualifying for the fire service.
“It’s a long process,” Boehm said.
The academy meets four times a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays recruits gather at the old fire station on Willow Street for classroom lessons. Thursdays are split between classroom time and hands-on training. Weekday sessions are four hours each, and recruits cap off the week with 10-hour shifts on Saturday.
Saturdays are spent in the field, putting these firefighter-hopefuls in the types of situations they would encounter on the force. They faced fire and smoke for the first time a few weeks ago, followed by a lesson in vehicle extrication at Metals Recycling in the Schnitzer Northeast complex. At BJs, they rappelled down a wall.
They learn how to force entry into a building, how to run a search and rescue mission and how to work in confined spaces. In a few weeks they’ll get to feel for themselves what extreme heat is like at the Rhode Island Fire Academy.
Thirty-year-old recruit Justin Petrin was previously working with a fire restoration company, bringing him in close contact with firefighters. Despite the institutional knowledge he came in with, he said the academy has been an eye-opening experience.
“It made me realize how much I didn’t know. You’re learning something every class,” he said. “What really surprised me is how coordinated a fire attack is. It’s not as chaotic as it looks; it’s organized chaos.”
Boehm says the training is challenging, but he has been pleased with this crop of recruits.
“They’ve done well,” he said.
For Boehm and his fellow instructors, the academy brings back memories of their own training. Combined, the instructors have more than 125 years of experience in the fire service.
“It’s like reliving it. We did all this stuff when I came on 20 years ago, but even with 20 years on the job you forget things,” Boehm said.
Captain Tom Marcello, who has been with the Johnston Fire Department for 17 years, said the academy starts with the basics, but training today reflects the many changes in the field.
“It’s gotten more and more intense; there are a lot more standards,” he said. “When I first got on, we never talked about weapons of mass destruction. Now it’s a daily thing. We have to change with society.”
At each stage of the training process, current fire department officials put training into perspective with stories from their years in the service. There are five instructors from JFD, but other firefighters occasionally stop in to help with training.
Josh Bloschichak, a 24-year-old recruit, said the knowledge and experience of instructors has been invaluable.
“The instructors are unbelievable,” he said.
Unbelievable, but tough, Petrin added.
“They definitely don’t take it easy on us. They’re teaching us how to look out for each other, and they make sure we know to stick together,” he said.
Bloschichak had a good idea of what he was getting himself into because he has several family members who worked in fire service. When he graduated from high school in 2007 he joined the South Kingstown Volunteer Fire Department, which affirmed for him that he was on the right track. What surprises him the most is how close he and his fellow recruits have become.
“We all have such different personalities and come from such different backgrounds, so to actually bond with these guys has been a really cool experience,” he said.
Now in the final stretch of the academy, Boehm has likewise built a rapport with the recruits. It’s a pattern he has seen with every recruiting class, a pattern that repeats itself in the fire service overall. Firefighters work and live together while on duty, and the camaraderie that results serves as a base for a strong department.
“We tell them right from the beginning, you guys are going to be together for 25 years and you’re going to have a bond unlike anything else,” Boehm said. “That bond will only get stronger.”
He pointed out that previous classes of recruits – firefighters that have now been on the job for 10 or 15 years – celebrate every year with an anniversary dinner. Boehm expects this class will be no different.
Their bond will likely be strengthened, he added, if they make it to the department. In the first few months, Boehm says there is a transition period where firefighters on the job help the recruits get acclimated, even if it means a little good-natured ribbing. In time, the divide goes away.
“All the guys on the job, they take the recruits under their wings. They’re there to help them, because they’re our brothers and sisters,” Boehm said.
That camaraderie is exactly what Petrin was looking for. He is an only child and said the idea of “having a brotherhood” appealed to him.
Instead of helping families after a fire has already happened, he hopes to fight the fires before they can do much damage.
“It’s a good way to help people,” he said.
Before the recruits can become firefighters, they must take their final exams. They took the Level I certification exam already, and all 14 passed. In January, they face their Level II exam, followed by individual evaluations.
“They get evaluated by the state and our own department. Those evaluations mean a lot; it means whether they make it or not,” Boehm said.
Petrin is hopeful that he will make it through. A resident of Cranston, Johnston Fire Department is his first choice. Since he started training, he has withdrawn his application from other departments. He is confident that the training he received here is preparing him for a career in the service.
When asked if he is afraid of the dangers that come with that career, Petrin didn’t hesitate.
“Not enough to make me second-guess this one bit,” he said.