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And They’re Off ...

They came from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and across Virginia. Some had spent years volunteering. Others had worked paid positions in other jurisdictions. They ranged in age from recent high-school graduates to men with wives and families. But they all had one thing in common: they wanted to be a Loudoun firefighter.

Last week, recruit classes 21 and 22 reported for their first day of fire and rescue training, a process that will take them months into the new year to complete.

Each recruit, as the newest county fire and rescue employees are known, will receive 1,200 hours of training, similar to the military’s boot camp. Their training will include 240 hours of emergency medical training, approximately 500 hours of firefighter training, physical training at 7 a.m. five days a week and classroom lectures on everything from sexual harassment to blood-borne pathogens.

"There’s a lot of commitment that recruits have to put in to a class like this," Chief Joseph Pozzo said. "These folks are going to be expected to maintain a certain grade average, maintain a certain fitness level and to embrace our values."

WITH A TOTAL of 32 recruits going through training at one time, Loudoun has one of the largest training programs, which is indicative of the pace at which the county’s fire and rescue system is growing as well.

"We are actually building this department into what it will be in 10 years," Pozzo said. "And we will continue to add staff as we grow."

It is the large number of recruits that prompted the splitting of the group into two recruit classes. During the first week of training Capt. James Williams, who oversees the recruit training, and the other members of the training staff have been testing the recruits both mentally and physically, which will help decide how they are split.

"We want to make sure there is a balance within both classes," Williams said.

Included in the testing is the recruit's physical fitness test, which is made up of a one-and-a-half mile run, as many push-ups and sit-ups each person can do, a flexibility test of the hamstrings, standing lunges and pull-ups.

"If a recruit can’t do a pull-up, we test how long they can hang on the bar," Williams said. "We actually had everyone run the mile and a half in under 17 minutes, 3 seconds and I’m happy with that. To graduate you have to be able to do it in under 15 minutes."

THE PHYSICAL demands of the training surprised some of the recruits, even those who had prepared beforehand.

"I work out five days a week, two hours a day, but you get out there and it feels like nothing," Robert Topa, a volunteer firefighter from Springfield, said "Some of the endurance things are tough, the lunges, stall push-ups."

On the second day of physical training, or PT as it is known, the recruits ran for 30 minutes in the August heat.

"Working in an auto shop helped prepare me for the heat, but still," Phillip Cohrs, a 24-year old from Springfield, said.

THE 31 MEN and one woman who make of recruit classes 21 and 22 come from all walks of life and decided to join Loudoun County Fire and Rescue for a variety of reasons.

Greg Southwick, 23, who graduated from Potomac Falls High School in 2002, was a firefighter in the Air Force and is still a member of the guard. After working as a career firefighter in West Virginia, he decided to move back to Loudoun.

"I wanted to come here and be closer to home," Southwick said.

Cohrs was attending classes at Northern Virginia Community College when he took an EMT class.

"I liked it and so I went on to become a paramedic," he said.

Cohrs has volunteered in Springfield and in Sterling.

TOPA BECAME A volunteer firefighter because he wanted to give something back.

"I ultimately did it just to help out my community," Topa, who is also a real estate agent and funeral director, said. He decided to move to Loudoun as a career firefighter at the urging of his wife.

"In Fairfax County it seems there are no jobs," he said. "And there’s more of an opportunity to advance in Loudoun County."

Advancement also brought Robert Michael Smith to Loudoun’s systems. Smith was a member of the recent graduating class, but had to stop training with four weeks left after tearing the meniscus in his left knee. Smith was already a career firefighter in Frederick County, Va., but the small system did not allow for much career advancement.

"I didn’t get my master's [from West Virginia University in safety management] to remain just a firefighter," Smith said. "The opportunity to advance is really here."

For many of the recruits, firefighting is in their blood, with family members who were members of a fire and rescue system. Wade Mahaffey, from Mechanicsville, Md., said both his father and his uncle were firefighters in Prince George’s County, Md.

"About four hours after I was born I was in the firehouse," the 19-year-old said. "It’s been in my family for a while."

WHILE THE first days of training are filled with a lot of lectures and paperwork, the recruits are ready to throw themselves into the hands-on portion of the training.

"I’m looking forward to getting on and climbing a ladder truck," Mahaffey said. "Any day you get paid to ride a fire apparatus is a great day."