My recruit class was an experiment. Miami Dade Fire Rescue needed firefighters and in an attempt to put two classes through simultaneously, sent my class, 99, to a neighboring county’s academy. Let’s just call it BFE. (This was ten years ago and instructors & attitudes may have changed). BFE wasn’t a big fan of ours and it didn’t take us long to sense that our instructors weren’t entirely invested in everyone’s success.
I had entered the academy physically and mentally prepared. I could run and knock out push ups and for months I watched the Discovery Channel’s six episode series on Navy Seals Buds Class 234 in order to psychologically prepare myself for a beat down. My husband would come home from a day on the boat to find me watching another episode, no doubt wondering if I harbored some obsessive fantasy about Navy Seals. I truly don’t; I just longed to know their secret to high performance.
Watching reruns of Buds did help mentally prepare me for the academy, but not quite in the way I expected. I was ready for yelling, but there wasn’t much. I was ready for vomit inducing PT, but that didn’t happen. What I wasn’t prepared for was silent disregard. I suspect BFE’s instructors didn’t want us all to pass, and I, one of two girls (Sherry Alfaro was a total badass), was perhaps considered expendable.
But, I had something they didn’t expect: an incredibly united recruit class, many who came from the military and MDPD and knew all about academies and how to play the game. Lucky for me, they had my back.
My greatest challenges were dragging the charged hose line 100 feet and hitting three cones in the allotted time, plus picking up and raising the 24 foot extension ladder: only two- thirds of the triple required to become a firefighter! When it came to the ladder, I received little to no personal instruction. I asked to stay after class to practice and was told there was potential lightning or too much wind or no instructors available (even though my classmates volunteered to help). In other words, No, I could not practice.
When it came to deploying the hose line, I don’t remember anyone from BFE working with me individually. Pulling the charged line seemed a matter of size and strength and it felt like something I just had to muscle through. One day after struggling through it, our class leader, John Rojas (who would eventually teach me to love extrication), told me to do it again. I balked. I was hot and tired and when I failed to exhibit the proper enthusiasm, Rojas, a former MDPD Sergeant bellowed, “PULL THE LINE ONE MORE FUCKING TIME!” I immediately complied. It was the first and last time he’s ever yelled at me and I was honestly grateful. I knew he cared. I knew he was invested in my success. As a true leader, he wanted all of us to succeed.
Fortunately, so did our MDFR instructors. They walked a delicate line at BFE; they were present yet encouraged not to interfere. One day, on their own time, they drove Dade County Engines to Opalocka Airport and put us on a charged hose line and taught us how to manage it. I remember tall, slender Lt. Barnes, standing close beside me saying, “Don’t be scared,” as the nozzle pressure pushed me back. Instructor Janice Metka showed me how to wrap my knee around the hose to control it, one of the advantages of having a female instructor. In fifteen minutes I was knocking every cone down. We all were.
It isn’t hard to sense who has your back and who doesn’t. It isn’t hard to divine who wants you to succeed and who wants you to fail. But the academy made it especially clear to me because I had two examples side by side. Two sets of instructors: one silently disengaged, the other emotionally connected, wanting me to make it.
When it came time to take our state test, we all waited our turn in the dark shadowed room of the fire tower. We couldn’t view anyone else’s performance, but we could hear some things going on outside. When my turn came, I was told the entire class held their breath until I yelled, “Dogs locked!” during the ladder raise, at which point they breathed a collective sigh of relief. By the skin of my teeth, I pulled it off. I worked hard, but their collective support made my success much more possible.
We need people to believe in us.
It took years in the field before I became a decent firefighter. There were people who wanted me to fall on my butt (literally!) and others who went out of their way to teach me something. Those people who go out of their way, the ones that step in with a simple word of encouragement or knowledge–they are angels. Every single one of them. And I remember them all. I also remember everyone who wanted me to fail. Fortunately, the angels out number the haters. And the farther down the road you make it, the more angels appear. You just have to make it pass the road blocks and keep on moving.
As far as the experiment went, we were the first and last. MDFR now has a state of the art training center and our recruits go through it with our own instructors. I can only hope they receive as much support from their brothers (and sister!) and MDFR instructors as I did. Because no one does it alone. Every one of us needs support. And those who choose not to give it, the best we can do is let them go and move on.
The ones that do give support pay their strength and knowledge forward. They are the ones that forge an unbreakable chain, a legacy of skill and experience that strengthens the entire fire service. This is what it means to be a Brotherhood. A Sisterhood. It means taking care of each other like you would your own family. It is being strong enough and wise enough to want everyone to succeed and stepping up to make that happen. That is leadership. And no matter our place on the rig, a time will come when we all must lead.
Because Together We Are Stronger.