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August 22, 2002

By Jake Rixner

It’s been a long time since the District of Columbia Fire Department recruit class # 289 was in session.  The long hot summer of instruction took place right across Interstate 295 from the blue plains sewage treatment plant, and the aroma was something to be forgotten.  One thing that will never be forgotten was the quality of instruction.

The District of Columbia Fire Department was probably the finest fire department in the country during the cold war.  The threat of nuclear war created an environment where the fire department was well equipped and well trained. The recruits assigned to class 289 started each morning by entering the front door of the academy, signing in the logbook, and placing their turnout gear in neat rows on the drill yard. 

After a formal line-up, they changed into physical training clothes and did 20 minutes of calisthenics, followed by a two mile run in military style formation.  Cadence was called out by Willy, or Zeke, or any other recruit inspired to do so.  100 yards from the end of the run the troops broke out of formation and sprinted to their turn-out gear and dressed as quickly as possible.  They then lined up in full gear with face pieces on, breathing air from their SCBA’s and started individual 50-yard wind sprints. Upon completion of this another line was formed and a bear crawl took the recruit back to the line waiting to do the wind sprint.

The high temperatures and the fact that these sprints were taking place in full turn-out gear, and after the recruit was tired created a situation where you had to dig deep into your heart to force yourself to find the energy to continue.  The instructors would get right in the face of anyone who showed signs of fatigue, “ ARE YOU GOING TO GET THE BABY?”  The question was, do you have the heart, the guts, the drive to keep going after you think you can’t go anymore and go rescue the baby in the burning building.  With the mental image of a trapped infant how could you give up?

Fast-forward to today, the year is 2002.  How many young firemen are in physical or mental shape to “Get the baby?”  Far too many training programs overemphasize safety and the comfort of the recruits.  Do you think that the force of nature that is known as fire could care who you are?  Fire is the ultimate equal opportunity destroyer. It takes the life of anyone in its path; the old, the young, and the disabled.  Now you can see why we need a force of young, strong men to be ready and able to “Get the baby.”

In today’s culture, one hears of the need for diversity, that the workforce should be representative of the community it serves.  Discrimination should not be tolerated by anyone, as has happened in the past.  But something even more perverse is occurring in many cities during the hiring practice.  Some cities are hiring by numbers.  X number of black males, X number of white females, X number of black females, X amount of white males, etc.  What about the many other races and cultures?  Don’t we need to reserve a place for them to?  Why not design a system where the best candidates are recruited for the physically challenging job of firefighter. 

Take a moment and imagine if the National Football League hired the same way many city fire departments do today.  Playing center, at five foot tall, 110 pounds, Jane Doe.  And at the left guard position, standing five foot four, weighing 95 pounds, John Weakling.  Isn’t life and property more important than winning a football game?  

Training programs need to be designed and delivered by people who have worked in busy firefighting companies. Firefighting experience can’t be read in a book, or bought for any price.  It is the experienced training officer that will produce the recruit who will have the best chance for survival on the fire ground, and have the best chance at getting the baby when the moment of truth comes.  The real measure of a fire department is; are its members motivated, physically ready, and mentally prepared to endure any hardship, to overcome any difficulty and make that hallway in order to find that baby and get her out of there?  

And to my fellow members of class 289, stay low, stay safe, and get the baby!
About the author
Jake Rixner is a fire Lieutenant with 20 years service in the Richmond, Virginia Fire Department. He previously worked as a firefighter in Washington DC. His fire service career started as a volunteer in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1978 at Company #5 (the busiest in Alleghany County).  He has had articles featured in Fire Engineering Magazine and has instructed at the FDIC. He is an instructor in Virginia. Lt. Rixner holds an associate's degree in Fire Science. Lt. Rixner still volunteers in Kentland in Prince Georges County, MD.