December 8, 2021

Feeling the heat: Firefighter trainees face tough learning experience

Catelyn Bettelle, of LaFayette, removes her firefighting equipment Thursday after completing a round of training Thursday.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Catelyn Bettelle, of LaFayette, removes her firefighting equipment Thursday after completing a round of training Thursday.

CORTLANDVILLE — Alarms hammer your ear drums.

The above average room temperature is bearable, but with a full face mask and an extra 65 pounds strapped to you, your wardrobe acts as a sauna.

Your air is limited and vision is hindered by a smoky screen. The only thing you have to rely on is your instincts and training as you maneuver through a maze of challenging obstacles.

And that is not even the advanced portion of training to become a firefighter.

“This is great,” an exhausted, sweat drenched Ben Bowers, 25, of Cortland, said Thursday morning.
He had just completed another trip through the training maze, all part of the summer Basic Training for Interior Firefighting program in Cortland County.

Bowers was joined by 12 other young — high school to college age — firefighting enthusiasts, eager to soak up as much training and information as possible on the profession.

“I came in with no knowledge of being a firefighter, but now have gained the confidence to know what to do in the case of a fire,” Bowers said.

The program is run by county fire chiefs and led by New York State Fire Instructor Brian Pendell, of Cortland. The bulk of it takes place in a building designed specifically for the training, behind the Cortlandville Fire Station and Headquarters on Tompkins Street Extension.

The training began in May with a two-day session involving classroom conferences on safety and acting out the first steps to follow when a fire breaks out. The next meeting was not until July 10, but between that time period students had to answer 750 multiple choice questions and complete hours of reading.

Once July 10 came, training went from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for the next three weeks.

Last week and this week, the students have gone through basic training performing tasks such as working with ladders, experiencing a burning building, learning first aid and CPR and navigating the maze.

The top floor of the training center houses the maze made out of wooden beams and boards. Students are tasked with crawling through the maze, guided by a fire hose. They must climb through, under and over inconvenient openings and navigate around obstacles such as wires, acting as live wires, and a broken mattress with exposed springs.

The trip through the maze Thursday morning added another challenging element, as students masks were covered with plastic wrap to imitate going through a smoke filled house, according to Pendell.

“This way we give them (the students) examples of real life experiences,” Pendell said.

Next week the training intensifies, Pendell said.

Students will face more challenging self rescue situations. They will have a floor collapse from underneath them and have a ceiling collapse onto them and work to get themselves out.

The students will graduate Aug. 1, and were already given the good news Thursday that they all passed their final exam. At the end of the program all students will be certified interior firefighters, able to go into burning buildings.

Becoming a firefighter is a dream come true for many of the students in the program.

Catelyn Battelle, 16, of LaFayette is looking to become a third-generation firefighter as her grand parents, parents and cousin have all worked in the field.

She said the process is challenging, but she is already developing many new skills, like being able to lift and put up the larger ladders.

For Bowers, becoming a firefighter is his way of giving back to the community. He has lived in Cortland for the last seven years and goes to SUNY Cortland, studying physical education. He has already began teaching, but when it comes to choosing between being a firefighter or a teacher, Bowers is uncertain what direction he will take.

“I love teaching, but this is a lot of fun,” Bowers said. “I could see myself doing either.”

Once the students graduate at the beginning of August, Pendell said the next day they could be hired by a fire department and tasked with going into a burning building, facing all the elements they dealt with in their training.