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'Strength Through Discipline'

For 26-year-old David Griffiths, firefighting is in the blood. His father has been a volunteer firefighter in East Hampton, N.Y., for 30 years; his grandfather has been a volunteer for 60 years.

"I always wanted to be a firefighter," Griffiths said. "I am a third-generation fireman. It's in the family."

On July 14, Griffiths became the first member of his family to be a career firefighter when he graduated from the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue recruit school.

"[My father] thinks it's the greatest thing in the world," Griffiths said. "The greatest thing since sliced bread."

Griffiths was one of 22 men and women in the recruit school's 16th class who graduated in a ceremony at Heritage High School Friday night. The ceremony marked the culmination of 22 weeks of intense training in both firefighting and emergency services.

"It was 22 weeks of pure enjoyment," said Griffiths, who had worked as a volunteer firefighter in both East Hampton and Prince George's County.

TO REACH GRADUATION, there are a lot of different challenges recruits must face and conquer, Deputy Chief Linda Hale said.

Throughout the 22-week school, recruits are trained in every aspect of the job, from CPR and hazardous-material operations to suiting up quickly and driving fire engines and ambulances. They are taught how to use a self-contained breathing apparatus and how to maximize their breath when in situations known as Imminent Danger to Life and Health or IDLH.

"These are the minimum levels [of training] that any emergency person has," Hale said. "The emphasis is not just on being quick, but on being correct at all time."

In addition to the technical training, recruits go through extensive physical training in classes that last from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Recruits also take classes on nutrition and the affect that tobacco and alcohol can have their bodies.

The physical training can sometimes be the most difficult for new recruits, Hale said.

"They are not necessarily prepared mentally or physically for the job," she said. "They don't always know how to do these things [to take care of themselves.]"

While Griffiths came in with experience in the nature of firefighting and did not think he would change much physically, he said he was surprised at the difference that the training made.

When the recruits ran their first mile and a half, Griffiths clocked in around 13 and a half minutes. By their last run, he shaved more than three minutes off of his time.

"I learned I could push myself farther than I thought I could," he said. "Running one and a half miles in 10 minutes and eight seconds felt pretty good."

Improvements like Griffiths’ are a large part of what recruit school is all about, Hale said.

"We are simply the motivating factor to make these recruits reach their potential," she said. "Graduation is the fruits of all of that sweat."

EACH RECRUIT SCHOOL is run by career firefighters who have come out of the field to work full time as trainers. The trainers’ job is to mold the new recruits into able-bodied firefighters, something that often requires them to be tough.

"This is a lot of hard work," Capt. Kevin Stiles, Class 16’s lead trainer, said. "Every day was something different. It was a challenge not only for them, but for us."

In addition to motivating each recruit individually, the school is designed to teach recruits to work as a team.

"It breaks you down as an individual to bring you back up as a group," Hale said. "We are very family-oriented. We're your extended family."

One of the reasons teamwork and the idea of family are so emphasized is the life-and-death situations recruits will face out in the field.

"They are not allowed to forget what they have learned," he said. "Someone's life is dependent on you. You can't just say you are having a bad day."

To ensure that each recruit is prepared for what they will face in the field, there are 66 tests they must pass with an 80 percent or better.

"That can be the hardest part," Stiles said. "The mental challenge they face."

Indeed, Griffiths said he spent most of his time outside of recruit school studying for the upcoming tests.

"Hands-on [training] is muscle memory, but you have to know a lot about the muscles and bones and basic life support in this job," he said. "For me, I was constantly studying."

While recruits must pass a physical agility test, a polygraph and a background check, the intense nature of firefighting does not allow for set requirements when looking for recruits. Instead, the Fire and Rescue Department looks for more intangible qualities.

"We look for someone who is energetic; someone who is going to be a positive role model," Hale said. "We look for someone with a good work ethic and who will be a good fit. We want people who are motivated and want to make Loudoun County a career."

As part of the training school, each recruit class chooses a motto. Class 16 chose "Strength Through Discipline," something Stiles said they worked hard to live to up to.

"If they had not done a superior job, they would not be here right now," he said.

AT THEIR GRADUATION none of the recruits knew where they would be assigned, but each knew that wherever they ended up, they would be amongst family.

"This is a brotherhood that is second to none," Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg), the chair of the public safety committee, told the graduates. "There are going to be tough days ahead. Your fellow firefighter or paramedic will be the one who will be there for you if you need help."

Chief Joseph Pozzo told the graduates that firefighting is "life-long learning."

"Every day is a new day and every call is a new call," he said. "Every day is a new learning experience. All of that makes you the whole person."

As for the graduates, they were anxious to start their careers in Loudoun County's fire and rescue system, wherever that may be.

"I'll go anywhere in the county," Griffiths said. "I just want to fight fire."