Fire department recruits find academy tougher than they thought it would be

With a fire extinguisher strapped to his back, Jeff Ponton gripped a pull-up bar one recent morning and lifted his 146-pound body while his classmates cheered him on.

“Up!” yelled Burbank Fire Capt. Tray White, 13 times. “C’mon Pon, 13!”

He finished the set, and hopped off.

“Next guy, let’s go!” White bellowed.

Ponton is one of nine people training for a job as a firefighter with the Burbank Fire Department.

PHOTOS: Burbank Fire Academy trains new recruits

Short-staffed by about 10 firefighters because of back-to-back retirements the last two years, the department is eager to integrate the new class, said Burbank Fire Chief Tom Lenahan.

The nine recruits had just finished dragging fire hoses 100 feet, five times each, before heading to the pull-up bar, after which they threw ladders against the walls of the training tower and ran drills inside the tower. This all before 8 a.m.

If Ponton and his classmates make it through the 14-week academy, they’ve got the job.

“This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said former construction worker Richard Dunn, 33, who began preparing, training and testing to become a firefighter four years ago. He had almost given up on the dream and was pursuing a contracting license when the department called him last June with an offer.

Fortunately, he’d maintained his workout regimen.

“I thought I was in shape — then I got here,” Dunn said. “There have been days where I thought I was going to pass out.”

During the 14 weeks, the academy covers everything from wildland firefighting and emergency services to how to handle hazardous materials. Recruits also work on their physical fitness — whether by throwing ladders or dragging 165-pound dummies — and book smarts.

Not all recruits pass muster with the department’s rigorous academy curriculum. This class of nine started with 11.

“If a recruit comes in and is not completely mentally and physically prepared, sometimes they can fall behind,” Lenahan said. “There’s a bar, there’s a level they have to measure up to.”

Roughly 20% of recruits don’t make it through the academy, which may be due to an inability to keep up physically or follow safety protocols during drills, Lenahan said.

“If safety violations happen, firefighters get hurt,” White said. “We can’t have that happening.”

Two years ago, just five out of eight recruits made it through the Burbank academy and still work for the department.

“That impacted us a little bit,” Lenahan said.

Despite the staffing shortage, the fire department has maintained staffing levels of 36 fire officials on-duty daily, which has cost the department in overtime, Lenahan said.

Last year, the department spent roughly $4 million on overtime, up from roughly $3.3 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2010, records show. 

“This will reduce our overtime budget, which will have a good impact on our department,” Lenahan said.

Even after the new recruits make it through the academy, they have a one-year probationary period during which they continue being evaluated in the field.

“Out there, it’s dynamic,” White said. “There’s not always an easy place to throw a ladder, there’s not always an easy place to drag a hose.”

With the academy in its 10th week, the recruits will graduate in roughly a month.

“We look forward to these guys being full-fledged firefighters,” White said.


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