What’s harder than attending a six month, grueling, Fire Academy? Doing it twice.
This week The Grit Factory welcomes guest blogger, Britt Mason. Britt is a professional Firefighter/EMT and an elite Adventure Racer representing Rev3. Her post details the arduous task of completing, not one, but two firefighting academies and how her experience in sports allowed her to get it done.
Last year, I made the decision to change my life and move to northern Virginia. It’s easy when you’re just applying for jobs and thinking of all the possibilities, but when you land the job and it becomes a reality, it’s a bit scary. Born and raised in Illinois, leaving friends and family was hard. The move and all of its changes took grit in itself, but not as much as completing my second professional fire rescue academy.
Prior to taking this position, I was a firefighter/EMT in Illinois for 5 years. I’d been through a fire academy and plenty of training, but it didn’t really compare to my new department’s career recruit school. For those of you who don’t know what an academy of this type entails, here’s a taste. School was 26 weeks of training broken down into a week each of personal protective equipment and SCBA, 5 weeks of EMT school, 14 weeks of fire school, and the rest specialized classes. Skill areas included: gear training, hose, ladders, rescue, fire behavior, firefighter survival, and so much more.
Each morning at 0700, we assembled in formation for PT (physical training) with the instructors. I stay pretty damn fit year round with constant training for adventure racing and CrossFit, but I got smoked more than a few times in workouts or just because we got disciplined for something. The rest of the day was filled with lecture and practicals. Once fire school started, we spent a lot of time in gear and SCBA.
In the beginning, they addressed a few common fears to see who needed to learn to overcome them and whether or not they could. If you had a fear of the dark, of being in tight spaces, of not being able to breathe, or of heights, you faced it head on in the first three weeks. They helped people work through it as much as possible, but several people resigned during SCBA week. I personally hate not being able to breathe. It’s easy to take it for granted until someone is constantly taking it away from you.
The biggest test early on is the SCBA maze. It’s a shipping container that has a pitch black maze built into it. You crawl through it, making your way by feel. The first time, it’s pleasant and you just have to make your way up, over, around, and through to the exit. The second time, the instructors continuously simulate an air pack failure by disconnecting your air, turning your air cylinder off, etc. You have to correct the problem while making your way through the maze. This was NOT a fun day for the majority of the class and the end of the dream of being a firefighter for some.
As recruit school continued, the daily grind was a challenge at times. It was draining physically, mentally, and emotionally. There were nights I came home and fell asleep before dinner. I was fortunate to have my partner to come home to and no children to worry about. Having a good support system is key to completing something like this, and I had very supportive family and friends around me. My partner took on more of the housecleaning, and we did a lot of cooking on the weekends to make things easier during the week. It allowed me to focus on school when I needed to and also gave me time to relax in the evenings and on weekends.
Coming into recruit school already being a firefighter, I knew what to expect. This set me up psychologically for success. My first school was short and only fire related. I was brand new to the fire service and learning the basics of my craft, trying to prove myself to the boys that I could do the job as well as they could. This time around, I knew the job and worked hard to improve my skills while learning as much new information and technique as I could. The written exams were designed to be very challenging, but I was well versed in the information (I had already read the fire text 3 times!). Being prepared and having good study techniques kept my stress level low on exam days. There were also constant physical skill tests, and I made sure to jump in and practice my skills as much as possible to be confident when I needed to perform.
I never allowed the question of IF i was going to graduate to enter my mind. It was expected. After all, I had uprooted my life and put it on hold to take this position. Failure was not an option. I put all my eggs in the Northern Virginia basket. I quit a department where I was well respected and had many great relationships, and I turned down a job offer from another department. This was the fire department I really wanted to be a part of and also the part of the country where I wanted to live. That being said, I couldn’t look at school as a whole. I had to take it one day at a time.
Small accomplishments, small completed tasks. It became a grind.
At orientation, a firefighter from the last recruit class described school as “the most fun you never want to have again.” After going through it, we know exactly what that means.
Firefighting is the best career in the world, but the repetition and training required to become proficient never ends. Wearing 60-70 lbs of gear day in and day out took a toll on our bodies. We were always banged up, bruised, and sore during fire school. Many days I was excited for what the day had in store.
Other days I had to shrug into my wet, smelly gear, put my game face on, hike over to the burn pad, and just do work.
There were times when I was disappointed with myself for not having performed as well as I should have or not having met the standards I set for myself. I just had to be able to turn the page and know that I would get another opportunity to correct it and to continue to prove myself.
I think that what made school easier for me was that I never took the day to day too seriously. The training was absolutely serious, but when we had down time or breaks, I had a good group of friends that kept things light. I also did not worry if we were going to get disciplined for something. Academies typically have a paramilitary feel to them, and it wasn’t a matter of IF, but of WHEN we would get smoked. It was part of the “game” of recruit school, and I took it in stride. The instructors knew they wouldn’t be able to break me, so I wasn’t a fun target for them. I just did my job to the best of my ability and controlled what I could control. CWYCC- Control What You Can Control. This was a big mantra for our team when I used to coach, and it’s one that I still live by today.
Looking back, this recruit school was one of the best things that could happen to me. Sure, it was a solid accomplishment to complete it. But what it really did was rekindle my passion for my career. The Grit Factory’s mission is “to cultivate grit and eradicate self-limiting beliefs by encouraging and supporting the deliberate pursuit of shit thats hard”. I’m truly fortunate to be able to say that I pursue this both professionally and athletically.