Patrick Knight and two of his classmates from the fire sciences program at Lanier Technical College plopped down on the curbside, exhausted and drenched with sweat, and got a critique of their performance as aspiring firefighters.
"The first round looked great, but as you got tired, it started to look like you were in survival mode," Hall County Fire Operations Lt. Todd Bowers told the students. "When you get tired and exerted, that’s when things can go to hell in a handbasket."
Minutes earlier, dressed in full turnout gear and carrying a hose, the three students crawled out on their knees from the Gainesville-Hall County Fire Training Academy’s metal "burn building," after navigating two stories of smoke, darkness and 800-degree heat.
"It’s absolutely intense," Knight, 22, said after getting some pointers from Bowers. "It’s the most physically demanding thing I can imagine. Football practice has nothing on it."
The Gainesville and Hall County fire departments had 16 volunteer instructors on hand to guide a dozen Lanier Tech students this week in two nights and more than eight hours of live fire exercises at the training facility near the Allen Creek Soccer complex. The training center’s motto is inscribed on a sign at the entrance: "Train as if your life depends on it, because it does!"
For most — if not all — of the Lanier Tech students, this week was their first real taste of fire conditions after six months of classroom instruction, four nights a week.
The Lanier Tech program follows the same standards as Hall County’s firefighter recruit school, but in a longer, part-time school setting. Most students work day jobs and learn fire science at night.
These days, there is no recruit school for local firefighting hopefuls. With 13 positions frozen in Hall County’s Fire and Emergency Services budget, the Lanier Tech program is the only new firefighter training option currently available locally.
Hall County Fire Capt. Skip Heflin said the live fire sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday focused on air management, physical fitness and techniques of applying water to fire.
"We’re trying to teach them it’s not just putting white stuff on red stuff," Heflin said.
Heflin said that with every firefighter for Gainesville and Hall County required to train at the facility once a year, helping out Lanier Tech students comes naturally.
"They’re in our hometown," he said. "We should be taking care of them, and that’s what we do."
Some of the students may end up battling blazes for Gainesville or Hall County.
Student George Tarado, 20, said he hopes the economy improves enough that departments are hiring by the time he finishes up the yearlong program.
Explaining his motivation to become a firefighter, Tarado said, "I’m an adrenaline junky."