Wearing 70 pounds of turn-out gear and breathing apparatus, 23-year-old Woodstock volunteer firefighter Jessica Jones climbed stairs, hauled hose, and dragged dummies of human bodies until her 35-minute air supply gave out. And that was just Day One of Ulster County’s first two-week Firefighter 1 Boot Camp, held in Highland the first half of July.
Of the 26 participants, 13 men and seven women made it through the challenging course, including Jones and A. J. Halstein from Woodstock. Other students included Sean Keaveny and Joseph Camperlino from Shandaken fire companies, and Abby Gutierrez and Sophie Epstein from West Hurley.
“It’s a great way to bring in the younger generation,” said Patrick Rose, a Woodstock EMT and firefighter from Company 1. Although volunteer departments around the country are aging and having difficulty finding new recruits, three-quarters of the boot camp participants were 25 or under, with several as young as 18. The usual volunteer training program is two or three nights a week over two and a half months, a difficult schedule for young people with jobs, high school activities, or college classes. The intensive summer program appears to be more attractive to local youth.
Working together for eight or nine hours a day, six days a week, also enabled students from around the county to bond and learn how to work as a team. “We found out what some of us were afraid of,” said Jones, “what people did and didn’t like to do. We pushed each other when we felt like giving up.”
One young firefighter had fallen from a ladder as a child and was afraid of heights. He told no one of his fear but enrolled in the boot camp with a determination to conquer his phobia. During ladder training, he froze halfway to the top, and other students had to climb onto the roof of the firehouse to help him continue. “One of the final tests was to set up and climb a ladder and lock yourself in so you won’t fall,” said Jones. “And he did it! He really wanted to push himself past his fear.”
Other exercises over the two-week period included rescue teams entering a three-story house to search for two dummies placed inside. At first, the students pulled their protective hoods down over their faces so they couldn’t see and groped through the building to find the “victims.” On another day, a fog machine filled the house with fake smoke as they went through the same exercise. The final day featured a live burn at the Dutchess Training Center, where a fire was lit in a contained room, and the students had to manipulate hoses and search all three floors of the building.
Also required were a physical agility test, classroom lectures, written tests, and nightly homework. “All the students are doing this so they can come back and volunteer in the communities they live in,” observed Rose. “I think it really shows the dedication and hard work put in by our local volunteers. And as a person that assisted in instructing this class on multiple days, I can say they surely put in a lot of work.”
“I don’t like to quit anything,” said Jones, “but there were times I would’ve loved to stop and sit down, take off my mask, and breathe clear, cool air. Even some of the stronger men had trouble.” She works out a gym regularly, which helped. One of the most demanding drills was “Mass Confidence,” in which students, in full gear, had to enter a confined space and maneuver through a maze. “You get caught with your pack, you get stuck, you can’t breathe, and you want to pull your mask off,” recalled Jones. “A lot of people freaked out and had to be pulled through.”
A graduate of Onteora High School and SUNY New Paltz, Jones is currently enrolled in an online Masters program in clinical psychology. She works for a Kingston youth advocacy program, which gave her two weeks off to attend the boot camp.
This April, she joined the Woodstock Fire Department as a volunteer, with no previous knowledge of firefighting. Her role until now has been responding to automatic alarms and working outside buildings to run hose and set up ladders. She assisted at one car fire. As a result of the boot camp, she is now certified to go inside burning buildings.
“The night of graduation, I went to Lake George for two days,” she said, “to relax and let my bruises heal up. The training was a lot of work, but it’s just the beginning. You always want to better yourself.”
Volunteers interested in applying for next year’s Firefighter 1 Boot Camp must first join a local fire department.