When you join the fire service, whether volunteer or career, you become part of something big, something old, something storied. At the same time, it’s also fresh and vibrant. However? It’s exciting and worrisome. You’re the new guy. You probably don’t know anyone and they don’t know you. But, just by taking the first step to join up, you’ve already demonstrated some of the attributes all firefighters admire and respect, courage and initiative.
But? This is just the first step. After joining the ranks, all “new” firefighters serve a probationary period. In the volunteer service, if they have no training, they go through in-house training where a senior member of the organization, usually a junior fire officer, teaches the rudiments of being a firefighter and belonging to that particular fire service organization. Every volunteer fire service organization has different requirements, but they are basically similar. The career service has completely different systems in place for new firefighters.
After a 24-hour Pre-Basic Training program, the probationary firefighter begins to ride the apparatus on bonafide emergency calls. They wear a yellow helmet, which signifies they have no “formal” training and have not demonstrated proficiency as a firefighter. As a rule, they are never placed in a hazardous role or environment. They perform extremely routine and mundane jobs at the incident scene. They are on the apparatus to gain experience. It also provides the fire officers and other firefighters the opportunity to get a look at them, to see if they have the proper demeanor and beginning skill set to be successful as a firefighter. This is their formative time and it’s very important.
The entry-level, probationary firefighter, i.e., no training, is required to enroll in the first available and convenient Firefighter I class. Here in Maryland, this is offered by the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute, MFRI for short. MFRI is a division of the University of Maryland. The classes are offered at various locations throughout the state. Typically, these classes are held at Regional Training Centers set up and owned by the University of Maryland. Occasionally, Firefighter I classes, as well as more advanced training courses, are scheduled to be held at individual fire stations around the state. Here on the Upper Eastern Shore, the “Upper Eastern Shore Regional Training Center” for MFRI is outside Centreville, near the Maryland State Police Barracks. Year ’round, up to and including 7 days a week, there is some level of training or classes in progress at every regional training center.
In Firefighter I, entry-level firefighters are taught the basics of firefighting. Through classroom instruction and subsequent practical experience in a drill environment, new firefighters gain the basic knowledge and skills that are imperative for a successful firefighter. Among other things, the course curriculum includes subjects such as the Science of Fire, wearing and working in Personal Protective Equipment, which includes Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus. Additional topics include instruction working with and the handling of water hoses, ladder operations and working with fire extinguishers. Occasionally, firefighters are called upon to use rope during an incident. Basic rope knowledge and learning how to tie basic fire service knots is taught. This is a brief cross-section of the Firefighter I curriculum. There is much included in the course not mentioned here. But? It’s extremely comprehensive. The Firefighter I course represents a significant time commitment for the individual firefighter. The Firefighter I class lasts for 108 hours and is broken up over many weeks.
Recently, the Chestertown VFC had two probationary firefighters complete Firefighter I. This is an important and exciting milestone in the development of a firefighter. The firefighter has ably demonstrated to the Fire I instructors the capacity and proficiency skill set of a basic firefighter. The Fire I instructors are experienced, long-time firefighters themselves. They know what it takes to be a firefighter. They are tough and demanding, but fair. If you get past them, you’ve earned the right to be a firefighter.
However? Just because you’ve graduated from Firefighter I, doesn’t automatically grant you promotion from probationary status at your home company. Remember the emergency incident riding period mentioned earlier? Where the officers and other firefighters are watching you. At this point, if the probationary has equated themselves well, they’ve earned the respect of their peers. If that be the case, they are promoted from probationary status to full firefighter.
In the fire service, we wear our PPE, short for Personal Protective Equipment, on most incidents. It protects us from the rigors of firefighting and other hazards associated with being a firefighter. One of the most distinctive and visible components of our PPE is the helmet. We firefighters are proud of what the helmet represents to the community and to other firefighters. We see a lot of helmet personalization where it is decorated and adorned with tasteful, memorable and eye-catching artwork and “front-pieces”. The front-piece is the leather, shield-shaped structure on the front of every fire helmet.
As mentioned, promoting from probationary status to full firefighter is considered a big deal. The yellow probationary helmet is exchanged for a black helmet, which signifies your status as a full firefighter, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with it. When that happens, we attach some ceremony to the exchange of helmets.
At our regular company meeting on Monday, June 4, 2018, we promoted two of our newest members to full firefighter…..
Alyson Grapes first joined us December 11, 2017. Alyson is from Chestertown and is the daughter of Renny & Tina Grapes, also members of the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company. She is a National Registry Emergency Medical Technician and works Part-Time as an EMT for a private ambulance company. She is employed full-time with the Cecil County Board of Elections. Her father Renny had the distinct privilege and honor of presenting her with her Black Helmet.
Alexander Alagia first joined us on August 21, 2017. Alex is from Washington, D.C. and is in his Sophomore year at Washington College. Alex works Part-Time, also at the Cecil County Board of Elections. In the period Alex was riding as a Probationary Firefighter, he distinguished himself by being one of our “Top 5” responders for several different months. Unfortunately, Alex’s parents could not join us for the promotion ceremony. In their stead, Chestertown VFC Chief John “Otis” Darling presented Alex with his Black Helmet.
The Chestertown VFC is excited to welcome these newest Black Helmet Firefighters to our ranks. We look forward to working with them.