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Hero's dream comes true as Hall firefighter

POSTED: March 17, 2013 1:00 a.m.

When Tray Ross risked his life to save Harold Johnson Jr., 76, blind and trapped in the kitchen of his burning home, he embodied the mentality Hall County Fire Services seeks in its employees.

“We want people that care about other people. You have to have that basic want to help other people when they need it,” training officer Skip Heflin said. “As long as somebody cares and they are physically able, we can train them to where they need to be.”

Ross was an aspiring professional firefighter at the time of the November 2011 fire, but he lacked a high school diploma or GED — one of the baseline requirements for employment as a firefighter in Hall.

After getting his GED last fall, Ross, 21, started training this spring. In 15 weeks, he will realize his career dream.

“This really is a dream come true for me. I’m just trying to really take everything in. I want to know how to do this job, and do it the best that I can,” he said Thursday at the Fire Training Center in Gainesville.

Ross and 19 other recruits began training on Monday.

Heflin explained that over the course of the training, Ross and his peers will spend time between classroom and hands-on instruction at the training center and burn building, learning skills from suiting up in two minutes or less to teaching fire safety to others.

All of the recruits have already been hired by the county, and upon completion of training and testing, will go on to become full-time firefighters.

While the requirements to apply for the job aren’t steep — at least 18 years old, driver’s licence, high school diploma/GED and a clean criminal history — the hiring process is selective, Heflin said.

“We had 200 and something applications, interviewed people for a week, all-day everyday, then PT tested 40. The PT test is a physical requirement agility test, and it’s pass or fail. We tested 60, and probably 50 passed, then we had to hand-pick the 20 that we have here,” he said.

In addition to a servant mentality, they seek certain skills and experience, he said.

“We want people who have experience if that’s possible. If it was a perfect world we would have 20 paramedics,” he joked. “We also look for if they were a firefighter anywhere else before, or a volunteer, because then they know what they’re getting into.”

Ross, a former volunteer firefighter in Union County, was acquainted with the dangers. In entering the burning house to save Johnson, he suffered smoke inhalation.

“We tell people that all the time — this is more of a calling. Not necessarily a job, or career even, but more of a calling,” Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said. “If you’re here for money, I’m very blunt: This probably isn’t the right job for you. But if you’re here as the fulfilment of a calling, then by all means apply.”

Ross lives in Hall County with his wife and 2-year-old son. While having the salary to support them is an obvious benefit, the true fulfillment is altruistic for him.

“Yes, I want to support my family, but it’s about more than that to me,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be a firefighter since I was 17 because I wanted to help people.”

After waiting for years, Heflin said that the first week in training has gone well for Ross and the other recruits.

“It’s been good. The first week is kind of rough because it’s all the introduction and HR stuff. Normally they’re here 9 to 5, but not this week,” he said.

Fire departments have adjusted to increasing roles as first responders, and the amount of training reflects that, he said.

“When I went to school, our recruit school was a month, and now it’s 16 weeks,” Heflin said. “When I first came on, we we’re a fire department and we ran some medical calls, but there wasn’t the emphasis on other things.”

Heflin spoke to some of those roles.

“Now we’re firefighters, educators, we run a lot of medical calls, we want everyone to be EMT and-or paramedic, we do rope rescue, hazardous materials, confined space, structural collapse, wilderness rescue. It’s a lot,” he said. “They get their fire stuff first, and that includes stuff like a being an educator.”

When the recruits graduate, they will all be state-certified fire and life safety educators, Heflin said, with education being a priority for the county.

In addition to being educators, the recruits are perpetually learning themselves, as Kimbrell stressed, as even 16 weeks is only enough for the bare necessities.

“Think of it like the military. This is basic training, and once they’re done, they’re able to work. But they’re always training. We require tremendous amounts of additional training before they can promote any further,” Kimbrell said.

Heflin himself, a 23-year veteran with the department and a training officer since 2005, is in the process of completing a college degree to meet the department’s career advancement requirements.

Ross embraces the concept. When asked what it was like to be a student again, he said simply, “I’m a student for life. Always learning.”

Heflin hopes Ross and the other recruits suit up for life.

“Some of them are going to be here for 25 years. At least that’s what we hope. That’s what we want,” Heflin said.

Ross sees himself on that track.

“I do hope eventually to get my degree and move up the chain,” he said.

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