- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

As the presidential candidates are busy putting out virtual fires, Zoe Frost and 22 fellow Fairfax firefighter recruits are learning how to extinguish real flames.

“I can’t imagine anything more rewarding,” says Ms. Frost, while fully decked out in 50-plus pounds of firefighter gear — almost half her weight — outside a mock fire scene at a five-bedroom Vienna house on a recent morning.

The recruits are in their final weeks of about five months of academy training. While it’s hard to tell, since they’re wearing layers of gear, face masks and helmets, prospective firefighters these days come in all shapes, ages and races, and in both genders.

“This is no longer a young person’s game,” says Capt. Chester Waters, a 15-year veteran of the Fairfax Fire Department and a basic-training coordinator. “It’s a second or third career for a lot of people,” he says, adding now is a good time to get in as there’s a wave of baby boomers retiring. “We have former nurses, a guy who builds motorcycles. You name it.”

Ms. Frost, 36, for example, is a former golf pro from South Africa who was drawn to firefighting for its intense physical challenge, and on this day, as she’s sweating bullets, she’s getting her fill.

The 23 recruits have been divided into three groups. One group is learning how to “advance the line (the hose) up the ladder” both “charged” (with water running through it) and “uncharged” (without water). In layman’s terms, they’re climbing the ladder while carrying the hose.

Once the recruits have climbed the ladder and start rolling inside through the second-floor window, Lt. Tom Johnson shouts out instructions.

“Stay low, roll in, hug the windowsill.” Then, as the recruits — silenced by concentration? — aren’t communicating very much, he adds: “Let him know you’re coming in. Keep talking.”

With every exercise, the recruits are timed and coached by drill-sergeant-like trainers, like Lt. Johnson. It’s akin to watching football practice.

“We want them to understand the urgency,” Capt. Waters says. “Time is on your back.”

Quite literally as it turns out. Firefighters carry SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) tanks with enough oxygen to last about 30 minutes. A small light on a gauge connected to the tank shows a green light until about five minutes worth of oxygen remains. At that point, the light turns red.

“If you’re deep into a large building and you have to move 90 feet or so to get out, it’s time to start moving,” Capt. Waters says.

The gauge also will start beeping if the recruit doesn’t move — show life — for 25 seconds or so, which explains why the recruits on the ground constantly shake and jiggle as they watch their comrades advance the line.

The two other groups work on search and rescue. A key aspect of these exercises is to work on orientation techniques in a smoke-filled house where visibility is limited.

“You basically don’t have vision,” Capt. Waters says. “You have to use other clues. You feel the walls and door frames and stairs. It’s as if the house talks to you in Braille.”

If there is some daylight shining through the windows, a firefighter knows how to “read” these windows. A small window indicates a bathroom and a larger window on the second floor indicates a bedroom.

To orient themselves in the house, they refer to the house by lettered quadrants: A is the first quadrant to the left of the entrance. The lettering goes clockwise, ending with the D quadrant to the right of the entrance. This is important when communicating to other firefighters — especially an outside coordinator — about their whereabouts.

However, the recruits’ investigation starts long before they get into the house. When they arrive at the scene, they’re asked to point out clues as to whether the house is empty or not.

“We teach them to look for things like a newspaper in the driveway, toys, a parked car. Is the chain latch on?” Capt. Waters says.

With so much to learn, 22 weeks doesn’t seem nearly enough. But, fortunately for the recruits — and everyone else — their training isn’t complete just because they graduate. Each graduate continues as a probationary firefighter for a year while continuing to learn the ropes and the culture of firefighting.

“The fire department is like a family — we will take care of you, mentor you and many times treat you better than your real family,” says Lt. Gary Vozzola, a 21-year veteran with the fire department. Still, station life also can also be a little challenging.

“It’s like a fraternity,” Lt. Vozzola says. “They’re going to see what you can take and where you fit in.”

Which includes a little teasing at times.

“You break a window and they call you ‘Crash,’ ” says Capt. Waters and smiles.

None of this worries Ms. Frost, who says that while golf is sexist and at times unfriendly — on tour in Scotland she once wasn’t allowed into a clubhouse — firefighting isn’t.

“I’m ready,” she says, looking forward to the leather helmet — instead of cap and gown — she will receive at graduation.

“I’m excited about getting out there and helping people, helping the community. This has been a lifelong dream of mine.”

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