Crouching a few feet away from an 800-degree indoor bonfire, Mimi Bowden aimed her fire hose inside a "burn building" at the Hall County fire training center and knocked down the blaze with a loud blast of water spraying out at 110 pounds per square inch.
"Oh, that was so much fun," the substitute teacher said afterward as she wiped the sweat from her brow, having removed her face mask and air tank, part of 60 pounds of turnout gear she donned for the Hall County Citizens Fire Academy’s "live burn" exercise.
Tuesday night, the academy’s inaugural class wrapped up its 10-week course with a turn inside the burn building, getting a feel for the work of a firefighter as they breathed through air masks, handled hoses and wore the bulky protective gear.
Computer programmer Steve Ward joked that he signed up for the academy "because they let me."
"I always loved the fire department, and I thought it would be cool to know more about it," Ward said. "It’s amazing. The common guy has no idea how much they do. I have a much better understanding now."
For two hours each Tuesday night, students learned not just about fires and firefighting, but emergency medical services, rescue operations, hazardous material responses, disaster planning, inspections and investigations.
"A lot of people are of the understanding that we just put out fires," said Capt. Scott Cagle, one of nearly a dozen fire services officers who spoke to the class during the 10-week academy. "And of course, after Sept. 11, the job has changed so much. We thought it was imperative that the citizens know what all we do."
During the 20 hours of classes, the citizens " got a small glimpse, but they have a better picture," Cagle said.
Tuesday night students suited up with the help of their instructors, who adjusted their air tanks and tightened up their masks. They showed no hesitation entering the building, where temperatures at various times ranged from 80 degrees on the floor to more than 1,000 at the ceiling.
"With this stuff on, you couldn’t feel it," Ward marveled. "They have excellent equipment."
Ward called the exercise "awesome."
Bowden was raised around volunteer firefighters and said she wanted to learn more.
"Just seeing all the behind-the-scenes stuff was great," she said. "You don’t have a clue about the incredible amount of work and training and preparation involved."
For their part, the firefighters who helped out with Tuesday’s hands-on exercise came away impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and lack of apprehension around the heat and flames.
"They seemed to enjoy it," Cagle said.
If some younger students decide they want to apply with the department, that’s a bonus, Cagle said.
"Future employment is not the first goal of this citizens academy," he said. "We just want to share what we do. But if it leads to that, it wouldn’t be a bad thing."