Tough. Courageous. Resolute.
If dictionary definitions carried pictures, you’d likely see a Johns Creek firefighter displayed beside one or all of the above.
Johns Creek Citizens Fire Academy cadets found out first-hand what it was like to step into the heavy rubber boots and squeeze into and out of the thick, bulky fire suits of its hometown heroes Saturday at the Roswell-Alpharetta Public Safety Training Center off Maxwell Road.
This was the final JCCFA course meeting of this inaugural and continuing eight-week program. The class convened June 4 and Johns Creek Fire Department command saved the best for last.
JCCFA offers ordinary citizens extraordinary access to JCFD operations. It’s open to adult Johns Creek residents and those who work in the city who can successfully pass an application process and a criminal history check. A formal graduation was held Monday at Station 62.
Saturday’s training exercise not only gave JCCFA cadets an interactive look at fire operations and strategy, but it also allowed JCFD an opportunity to put its physical training and equipment functions through the rigors of the real thing.
And conditions Saturday were grueling for the men in red. A pre-dawn roll call and set-up followed by live fire drills had JCFD on its feet cycling double duty shifts late into the day. Big coolers full of ice and stocked with bottled water and sports drinks disappered faster than the firefighters in the smoked filled fire simulation rooms.
Under a cloudless and unforgiving late July summer sky, baseline ground temperatures hovered in the mid 90s.
Combine that with more than 40 extra pounds of bulky, insulated fire gear and cumbersome air packs wrapped around your body while hauling dead-weight water hoses and other equipment across a fully-exposed paved parking lot.
Then, fan yourself with constant and inescapable latent heat blowing off idling pumper trucks and reflecting up from the pavement for hours on end.
Firefighters endured all of these conditions before they ever even entered the three-story burn building to face their nemesis – an unpredictable living, breathing, ferociously opportunistic creature intent on destroying anything in its path.
And cadets followed them in. Under scaled-back conditions and wearing the same gear and oxygen masks as firefighters, cadets crouched and huddled in the burn building’s kitchen simulation chamber while propane-fueled flames exploded from a stovetop and fanned across the ceiling.
Between intermittent flashpoints you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face. The darkness was dizzying and it triggered a primal "flight" terror response even in this controlled environment.
But the cadets and firefighters hung tough.
Jerry Lewis could only imagine what it’s like for firefighters to enter a structure they know nothing about: floors burning from beneath their feet, ceilings dripping with molten, toxic materials.
“I was on my knees with a 30-pound [air pack] ‘monkey’ on my back. I couldn't see anything through the thick, acrid smoke except the roaring flames leaping up the wall and across the ceiling,” Lewis recalled. ”And it was hot. Very, very hot – almost 300 degrees. It seemed to last forever.”
“Sound like a horrible dream? It was no dream. I lived this reality with my other JCCFA classmates as we all got a small taste of the real world of firefighting. The ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty and intimidation: firefighters are a different breed, maybe even a different species,” Lewis added.
JCFD command wasn’t above putting themselves in harm’s way, either. Both Chief Jeff Hogan and Deputy Chief Pat Wilson donned the same gear as men nearly half their age to trudge right along beside them through the day’s training exercises.
Leading by example is how Chief Hogan maintains morale, inspiration and retention within his ranks, he said.
They all share a common oath to protect life and property.
And they also share an uncommon, innate camaraderie not often seen publicly from emergency responders of this calibre.
It’s also one of necessity when safety and survival are constantly on the line.
It’s the creed, calling and daily duty of a Johns Creek firefighter.
“And it’s like we told y’all in the first class,” Dept. Chief Wilson said while addressing cadets in his rehab debriefing. “This is a family. The whole fire department is a family. And y’all are all part of that now, forever. Stay in touch with one another. And remember your training."