The alarm rings at 3 a.m. Groggily, the crew gathers, then heads to the fire just reported at the north edge of town.
You arrive on scene and enter a smoke-filled house. Unsure of the layout, blinded by the smoke, so you feel around with your hands and eventually find the bedrooms at the back of the house.
Huffing air from your breathing apparatus, you save the two little girls sleeping in back while your colleague saves the mom sleeping in the other room.
Your adrenaline surging, you emerge from the house sweaty and thirsty, but also a hero.
“All little boys want to be firemen,” said Chuck Jacobs, Houston Mesa’s fire chief and the fire science program coordinator at Gila Community College. “And some of us never get over it.”
GCC’s fire science program allows high school students to graduate their senior year with a high school diploma, a certificate of proficiency from the college, an associate’s degree in technical science and Arizona certifications in structural and wildland firefighting.
Because the college runs the program in concert with the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology, the students can attend for free, which Jacobs said equates to a $10,000 scholarship. Adult learners can enroll in the four-semester program, but they must pay.
Zack Blazer, an 18-year-old in the third semester of the program, said he wants to follow in the family’s footsteps. His father and brother both fight fires.
“It’s fun,” said Blazer about the courses — “a lot of hands-on.” For example, in his wildland class, he “cut line,” which involves cutting vegetation to halt the spread of fire.
The rigorous program has a high attrition rate, said Jacobs. One year, just four students finished from 23 that began. Blazer’s class has six students. Most of the attrition occurs after the first semester.
“Some don’t take it seriously,” Jacobs said.
Monday, however, marked a big day for the third semester students — the serious ones. They received their firefighting suits along with a series of admonitions.
“Don’t leave them in your truck,” warned instructor and Pine Strawberry Fire Captain Joel Brandt. The sun ruins the material.
“Notice I didn’t give them to you before Halloween,” said Jacobs. The suits cost $1,400 and can keep a guy safe from a flash fire up to 900 degrees.
Students borrow the suits since a final exam requires they fight a burn drill. Before the final, they must spend time acclimating to the 20-plus-pound suits. In a fire, they’ll also carry another 20-plus pounds of breathing equipment.
When Jacobs, who was Payson’s first paid fire chief, started his career in 1971 as a volunteer for Payson’s department, “they handed me a hat and a coat and said, ‘Here. You’re a fireman.’” Today, students must undergo considerably more training.
The four semesters of classes include instruction in first aid training, rescue practices, patient stabilization, tactics and hazardous materials.
The future firefighters needn’t know everything about hazardous materials, but they need to know what to avoid, said Jacobs.
Similarly, they learn about construction methods. Modern buildings can quickly kill a firefighter. When the thin, wooden walls collapse, the roof has nowhere to go but down.
Firefighters must consider these factors when arriving on scene to determine if they will try to save the house or concentrate on keeping the flames from engulfing the neighborhood.
Jacobs’ slogan: “We will risk a lot to save a lot. (A life.) We will risk a little to save value. We will risk nothing to save nothing.”
To join the brotherhood of firefighters, students take classes in the morning and then attend regular school for the rest of the day. They must maintain a “C” average and avoid getting into trouble. Traffic tickets are fine, but no department will hire a guy with a drunk driving record or history of theft.
“People invite us into their homes,” said Jacobs. A hero must be worthy.
Heroes must also remain cool under pressure, enjoy action and be willing to spend a lot of time away from their families. Jacobs says that firefighters have high divorce rates.
They risk lung problems, back problems, cancer, heart problems and hearing problems for the joy of being society’s protectors — the people you call when you’re scared and vulnerable and dial 9-1-1.
Firefighters are 9-1-1.
“These guys are the future of fire science,” said Jacobs as the third-semester students experimented with their new suits.
And maybe, if you ever make the emergency call that you pray you’ll never have to — one of these young gentlemen will arrive to save you.