Cadets ready for next level after Verdugo Fire Academy graduation

Katherine Thompson stumbled into a job at the Glendale Fire Department nearly by accident.

The 29-year-old Los Angeles resident had a degree in theater and was looking to make a career change. She decided to attend nursing school and, while standing in line at Glendale Community College to register for courses, dropped the course catalogue, which fell open to the EMT page.

“I didn’t even know you could go to school for that,” she said. “But what occurred to me, when I thought about what I wanted to do next, I thought about something that was boots-on-the-ground and that was all about helping the community.”

Thompson, now an ambulance operator for the Glendale Fire Department, was one of 47 cadets to graduate from the Verdugo Fire Academy in a ceremony this past weekend at GCC. Many of the newly-certified Basic Fire Academy Class XIV cadets, like Thompson, were sponsored by local fire departments that lent out boots and safety equipment to the students.

Twenty-eight of the cadets were sponsored by fire departments, an uptick from previous years, said Tony Bagan, the fire academy coordinator and a fire captain for the Pasadena Fire Department.

“This was the largest number of sponsors that I’ve ever seen in the 22 years that I’ve been doing this,” he said.

If a cadet is sponsored by a fire department, the understanding is that he or she will go back to that agency to gain hands-on experience — a requirement to become a first-level firefighter. After a year of experience as a cadet or volunteer, he or she can apply for a job.

The chances of securing a position fresh out of the academy are dismal.

“Right now, there is a relative lull in the hiring,” Bagan said. “They’re just allowing people to retire and they’re not filling those spots.”

But there may be an uptick in the next couple of years when more firefighters begin to retire and the economy turns around, he added.

“It’s going to be very competitive for the next couple of years,” Bagan said. “But after the next two or three years, I think you’ll see a lot of openings and a lot of hiring.”

Verdugo Fire Academy Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna said there is a 60% to 70% success rate among graduating cadets. The academy also opens doors for recruits at fire departments in the tri-city area while teaching them important life skills, he said.

“In this academy, we teach them more than just becoming firefighters,” he said. “They’re not only walking out of here as better firefighters, but better individuals.”

Bryan Andrews, who was honored as Top Cadet, has an edge on the other members of his class. Bagan said the award is given to someone who is “almost identical to the perfect firefighter.” A fire department is likely to snap the cadet up very quickly.

Andrews, a 31-year-old who is married with three young children, said he was inspired to launch into fire service by a firefighter who was his mother’s first boyfriend after his biological father left the family.

A mortgage broker in Santa Clarita, Andrews said some nights he slept only four or five hours as a student at the academy. Now, he aspires to be a firefighter in Los Angeles County.

“I think bigger than protecting homes and saving lives and doing all that — the community needs somebody that fills them up with hope,” he said.

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