Introduction to the Fire Academy

What the recruit firefighter can expect in initial training

Philadelphia fire recruits undertake physical training
Philadelphia fire recruits undertake physical training. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Fire Academy

By Mandy George

Imagine showing up at a fire station one day empty-handed and without any training. The alarm goes off, the firefighters rush to the sides of the engine to start putting on their bunker gear—this is the personal protective equipment that will save their skin, literally, from the heat of the fire. You watch the pieces go on and look into the cab where there are backpacks that look like they could be used for diving and different sized tools you have never seen before. The officer of the crew tosses a coat and a helmet to you and says: “Get in. It’s you’re lucky day!” You squeeze in the back of the cab and watch the firefighters fasten their coats while they listen to the updates about the fire coming over the radio. You struggle to put on the coat and one of the guys asks you: “First time?”

“Yes,” you say enthusiastically.

“Well, stay close,” he says sternly.

It used to be the norm for departments to provide only on-the-job training for firefighters. However, because the job itself can be so dangerous, especially if people do not have the proper training, many states began to require training classes and certifications before a person could go into a burning building or drive a fire truck. Ensuring that people are trained to function at a certain level and are aware of how to use the equipment they are issued makes the workplace safer for everyone. For example, if a firefighter does not know how to search a building for a victim and gets lost, it can put the lives of many other firefighters in danger. In many areas of the country, firefighting certification training occurs in a fire academy setting. The next three articles will explore the basics of what happens in fire academy and why instructors do some of the things they do.

First Things First

Firefighters fill out tons of paperwork the first few days of the academy. This is actually documentation the fire department, state, or other certifying agencies need to verify that the students are healthy and of age to perform the skills and tasks involved in academy training. The paperwork often includes liability waivers and acknowledgements stating students are aware certain standards must be met in order to pass. Depending on the career or volunteer status of the academy, this could include instructions about what would happen with students’ job status with the organization if they did not meet the standards. For example, the paperwork could say firefighters must score 80 percent on every test to pass the academy. If they fall below that score three times, they will not pass and will no longer be employed with the organization. This puts a lot of pressure on firefighters to succeed individually. It also creates many opportunities to work together in study sessions. This creates a feeling of unity within the academy. Nearly everything in the fire academy is focused on the two things this one situation provides: individual performance under pressure and teamwork.

Who Are We?

The students in the academy will often be asked to come up with and vote on a creative name for their specific fire academy. This is how the whole group will be identified for the duration of the class and often for many years to come so it’s important to pick a good one! During the first few days of the academy, instructors divide the class into smaller groups. Most of the fire academy is spent in these small training groups called units, crews, or companies. The size of the group can vary depending on the size of the class and the capabilities of the department, but the number of people in each group typically ranges from between three to six. This is the number of people who will commonly be working together off a fire apparatus or initially on a fire scene, so it is a good number with which to learn and practice fire related skills. These are also numbers that are within an incident commander’s span of control.

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The group or company is required to stay together at all times, or the group leader needs to know where everyone is. This is a part of building accountability and teamwork. If the class has a president or leader, that person is usually responsible for keeping track of all of the companies. The class president also ensures that the class is on time, lined up, and prepared. This person could also be responsible for voicing the concerns of the class to the lead instructor of the fire academy. This teaches and reinforces the idea of chain-of-command. It also encourages the class and individual companies to work together to solve their problems. Companies also work closely together to solve physical challenges during physical training (PT).

Physical Training

Firefighting is an extremely physically demanding job. People joke about how firefighters are always sitting around in recliners or watching TV. However, when the alarm bell goes off and the gear goes on, the heavy lifting and cardio workout begins. Fire academy PT gives students an introduction to those physical stresses in a safe environment. It is also used to encourage teamwork and help relieve the stress and pressure of academy life. The PT schedule might include running/jogging, weight training, bodyweight exercises, and games. There is often an element of friendly competition added between companies or individuals to make it fun. Sometimes scores may be taken on physical assessments to show improvement from the beginning of the academy to the end. It is impressive to see how much the scores can change! Overall, PT in a fire academy setting is for personal improvement as much as it is for building a strong and resilient team. It is possible to be successful without being the strongest or the fastest. Just don’t quit.

Physical Fitness in the Fire Service

Paperwork, class names, companies, teambuilding, and PT are the main components of the “getting to know you” period of the fire academy. In the next article we will focus on personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes “turnout gear.” We will also go over self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and a few other modules you will see in the next stage of the fire academy. This is where it starts getting really fun!

Mandy George

Mandy George is a retired lieutenant in the Chesapeake (VA) Fire Department. She has a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management, a master’s degree in professional writing, and an associate’s degree in emergency medical services. She is also a Nationally Registered Paramedic (NRP) and a Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services (VAOEMS) Education Coordinator.

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