When Mark Garcia placed an order for Halligan Bottle Openers inscribed “CLASS 36 – SQUAD 3” we wanted to get to know him a little bit better. Who knew we’d be interrupting lunch on his last day of academy? After graduation, we sat down to learn all about Mark’s experience as a newly-trained Firefighter.
HBO: Who or what inspired you to become a Firefighter?
MG: A year ago I was with a friend of mine who’s a Firefighter, and we were talking about work. His stories about helping people really interested me and got me thinking about what I was doing at work and whether or not I felt like I was making the same impact. I went on several ride-alongs and got to experience the feelings he described, and it instantly had my attention. I enrolled in an EMT course, received my certificate, and then immediately enrolled in the fire academy.
After experiencing and graduating from the academy, I already miss it. I miss that camaraderie that was shared on the training grounds. I miss going out on the weekends and throwing ladders, pulling hose, catching hydrants, washing the fire engine, and everything else that the
fire service has to offer. I played soccer while growing up, and loved being a part of the team. Through the academy, I found a new team sport and it’s addicting.
HBO: Now that you’ve graduated, where do you see yourself in 5 years?
MG: I would love to be in a department as a full-time paid Firefighter.
HBO: Can you tell us more about where you trained?
MG: I just graduated from South Bay Regional Fire Academy (The Academy) located in San Jose, CA. The Academy teaches basic hands-on firefighter skills and didactic training required by the California State Fire Training Firefighter 1 Curriculum. This course meets and exceeds the standards for certification by the State Board of Fire Services and the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
While the cities and counties in California all have different minimum requirements for fire department employment, completion of a Firefighter 1 Academy training program is becoming a more common one pre-requisite. Graduating from The Academy gives me the opportunity to apply to more departments. Once hired, the skills, tactics, and training I received at The Academy will allow me to excel through the department’s academy.
HBO: How long was the training program?
MG: The Firefighter 1 Academy is a 6-month, 540-hour program conducted on weekends – 10 hours each Saturday and Sunday, and 4 hours on each Friday night.
HBO: How many probies were in your class? How many graduated?
MG: We started the academy with 30 recruits. Within the first four weeks, eight dropped out. We finished with 20 graduates.
HBO: What was your first week like?
MG: The first weekend of training consisted of learning about our PPE – what it’s limitations were, what it could do for us, learning how to don and doff the PPE, and learning what it was like to perform basic functions like climbing the stairs of the seven story tower in our PPE and on air.
Although The Academy is exclusively on the weekend, we were expected to prepare during the week. We were assigned textbook readings and quizzes, which required an 80% or higher. We were expected to shine our boots for our Class B uniforms, iron our Class B pants and shirts, sand and polish our axes, and ensure that our personal protective equipment (PPE) was in working condition and ready for inspection Saturday morning.
Friday night consisted of classroom lecture. Then, Saturday and Sunday we were on the training grounds to learn the material hands-on. We showed up at 6 AM to set up our PPE for inspection and place water and Gatorade in coolers. We stretched from 0645 to 0700 and PT was from 0700 to 0745 or 0800. We changed into our Class B uniforms for a morning inspection and then into our turn-outs to learn skills the rest of the day until at least 1800.
HBO: What was the most challenging training technique for you?
MG: Learning how to perform the 200-foot minute-man carry from the crosslay flat loads. The first time I attempted it, it seemed so overwhelmingly heavy. I couldn’t see or sense what was happening with the hose. I believe I made it 50 feet across the training ground to the exterior stairwell and then maybe one story up before I had to drop the load and sort out the spaghetti of hose. All the while, the instructional cadre is watching along with your peers.
HBO: What was your worst day?
MG: Definitely, Air Aware Day.
While performing a series of training exercises, we were instructed to go on air and stay on air until completely running out. The drill included fire suppression, search-and-rescue, breaching and pulling ceiling, carrying, raising, and climbing extension ladders, and lifting hose bundles.
On the way up to the 3rd or 4th floor I ran out of air in my 4500 psi bottle. I was so exhausted and confused, I didn’t even have the dexterity to click off my air. I received assistance from the instructor. We made it to the top, then had to turn back around and come down.
Once we got to the ground floor, the evolution continued. At this point we were allowed to remove our masks. Our next task was to advance a charged hose line to the rear side of the building. We were gassed and only extended the hose about 100 feet when the instructors ended the drill. The final instruction was for us to tie a knot. The instructors said once we tied the knot, we were done and could go sit in rehab and catch our breath.
This eye-opening drill lasted all of 30 minutes. Most of what we had done takes place on any fire within the first 5 to 10 minutes of arriving on scene before the fire has been put out. It showed us that we need to think about our breathing when performing rescue tasks. Even more importantly, we should be thinking about how much air we have in our bottles and know when we to turn around and exit so we don’t put ourselves in a dangerous situation.
HBO: Do you have a significant other that supported you through The Academy?
MG: I actually proposed to my fiancé, Jeanine, one day prior to attending The Academy orientation.
Jeanine helped me throughout the academy more than she knows. During the week she’d ask me how I was doing with my reading and quizzes. She taught me how to iron (sadly, I had never ironed before The Academy, however now I can say I’m a pro at it). She made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the weekends.
And what she didn’t know is how much she pushed me on the drill grounds. Under the brim of my helmet, I had her write with pink sharpie a heart and her name. There were plenty of times where I thought to myself, “What the heck am I doing here? This isn’t for me. Enough is enough.” Just seeing her name on my helmet was enough to keep me going with a smile and the determination to excel.
The hardest part was the lack of communication. I’d get home from The Academy, take a quick shower, eat, and then try to hang out with her and talk about the day. Inevitably, I’d fall asleep within an hour and the following day would be back to academy or work. At times I felt selfish for going through this process as it took so much of my time away from her. Aside from being at work 40 hours a week, our weeknights were no longer ours. I was going to the gym so I would be able to keep up with the physical requirements of the academy on the weekends and then coming home to shine boots, iron clothes, shine my axe, read, and take quizzes. She made a lot of sacrifices to allow me to follow this dream of mine, and I cannot thank her enough.
HBO: What made you pick the Halligan Bottle Opener for your fellow probies?
MG: As a squad leader within our platoon, I was responsible for myself and four other recruits. I was responsible for getting health and gear reports from them on a weekly basis and sending it up the chain of command.
Aside from that responsibility, there were many other unwritten responsibilities. I took it upon myself to make sure that they were dialed in for the weekends. I’d check in with them on Saturday and Sunday mornings, talk to them for a few minutes and check to make sure they had shaved in the morning. I’d take a walk down our inspection line and make sure their gear was all uniform. One recruit was notorious for having his door choke upside down and not dressing his figure 8 knot ,and I’d give him a hard time for it every day. I made sure we were always walking in a single file line between various stations on the drill ground and always walking with a purpose. I also checked in on them weekly to make sure they were reading and studying, taking the quizzes, ironing their clothes, and shining their axes. We had multiple pizza parties at my house, where we’d shine our axes until they looked like mirrors.
If any of them were not up to par during inspection, I’d be held accountable for it. They understood that, and me buying the Halligan Bottle Openers for them was a way for me to say thank you. They worked hard and never gave up. They made me proud, and they are like family to me.
Congratulations to Mark and his crew! Good luck and stay safe.