Training academy: Future firefighters and the fire inside

South King Fire and Rescue firefighter recruit Chris Boone listens to his instructor before they enter a mock fire at the Training Academy in North Bend.  - Kyra Low/The Mirror
South King Fire and Rescue firefighter recruit Chris Boone listens to his instructor before they enter a mock fire at the Training Academy in North Bend.
— image credit: Kyra Low/The Mirror

Chris Boone and Tyler Wilkins-Haigh are less than six weeks away from their dream.

Boone and Wilkins-Haigh are more than halfway done with training at the Washington State Fire Training Academy. They will soon be full-time career firefighters with South King Fire and Rescue.

For Wilkins-Haigh, it’s been a dream since his school days.

“I decided I wanted to be a firefighter in high school,” he said. “I took a class on firefighting and we came up here to North Bend for a ‘burn to learn’ day. I got the heat on my face and got to learn what it was like.”

For Boone, it was more about proving himself.

“It’s kind of a challenge for me,” Boone said. “My dad didn’t think I could do it, so I took it as a personal challenge and here I am. It’s a service to the community I live in, and it’s a fun and interesting job, and I love it.”

‘Put the wet stuff on the red stuff’

The fire academy, which was started back in the 1980s, runs three recruit schools a year. Each school is 12 weeks long, and covers everything from book work, learning to fight fires and the science of the flames.

“The best part about here is learning fire behavior,” Boone said. “There is so much science.”

Both Boone and Wilkins-Haigh were part-time firefighters before, so they have some experience in the field.

“You learned put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Boone said of his time in the Gig Harbor and Milton fire departments.

The academy is like a firefighter boot camp.

Each morning begins at 6 a.m. with physical fitness, followed by a quick breakfast. Then it’s classroom time.

For the first few weeks, recruits spend most of their time in lectures and learning from books. However, they do quickly change over to real-life drills with hoses and entry technique — and eventually live fires, hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction, car wrecks and extraction.

This continues until dinner at 6 p.m. Then studying begins at 6:30 p.m., and many nights continue until midnight. Then it starts all over again.

Making the cut

Boone and Wilkins-Haigh were chosen out of an application pool of thousands.

Whenever a fire district is looking to hire new firefighters, they go off a list of test scores assembled by an organization, Capt. Kevin Body said. Body is overseeing the training of Boone and Wilkins-Haigh.

The organization tests possible candidates on a standardized tests, and creates a list of those with the highest scores. Fire departments across the state can pick those they want to interview.

South King Fire and Rescue (SKFR) chose 10 candidates to interview for the two open spots. Boone and Wilkins-Haigh were on the top of list.

In addition to interviews, part of the hiring process at SKFR is testing how well potential new hires fit in with the rest of the crew.

This part of the hiring process gets a little fun — as administration, union members and the potential new hires have a pizza social.

“It’s a chance to see how they interact with others,” Body said.

The department wants to be sure the new crew members will be a good fit because there is a lot of funding that goes into getting a firefighter trained and geared up.

A full set of gear can run $2,000. There’s another $3,500 for recruit school and about $1,000 for uniforms.

So far, so good

So far Boone and Wilkins-Haigh have been fitting in great, and their training is going well. Both are near the top of their class and have already received several compliments from their instructors to Capt. Body.

There are several more weeks of training to go — weeks in North Bend that so far have been cold and snowy.

The Mirror will continue to cover Boone and Wilkins-Haigh's progress in the academy as well as their transition to career firefighters, including training the remaining weeks, graduation and post-academy training.

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