Having come from previous jobs as far away as Michigan and as near as Savannah, five firefighters received their badges Friday evening as the Statesboro Fire Department’s newest members.
The graduation and pinning ceremony in the Statesboro High School auditorium marked the completion of the first recruit class of 2017 and the first led through its in-house training by Parker Johnson, an experienced SFD firefighter new in the role of training captain. Three veteran firefighters also were recognized for recent promotions in the department.
Firefighter Eric Baxter moved almost 1,000 miles for his new job.
“It was quite the travel, but definitely worth it,” Baxter said.
At age 29, he has 10 years of experience fighting fires. In Michigan he served with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe Fire Department. Based in Mount Pleasant, the tribal fire service covers more than five townships and deploys both career and volunteer firefighters. Statesboro’s is an all-career department, while Bulloch County operates a separate, volunteer fire service.
Baxter is relocating here with his wife Alli, who did the honor of pinning on his badge. Her parents also came to Statesboro for the ceremony.
Although two of the recruits had little or no experience, all five had attained national certifications as firefighters before the Statesboro Fire Department hired them. So the training that Capt. Parker Johnson led them through, beginning June 5, lasted just two intense weeks, in contrast to the six weeks that would have been required for raw recruits needing the Firefighter I certification.
“That’s why we do a fast track, to make sure they understand the Statesboro way and how we do things and then to make sure that their knowledge is where it needs to be,” Johnson said.
National Fire Protection Association requirements are pretty much the same everywhere, Baxter noted. But even with his experience, he still learned useful things from his fast-track training, he said.
He also saw what he thinks are some regional differences. For one, the tribal fire department in Michigan put fewer firefighters on each truck, sometimes as few as two, compared to three or four here.
“It’s more-hands on-deck than what I’m used to,” Baxter said. “They’ve got a lot more people than what we had, so it makes things a lot easier.”
Not the only woman
Firefighter Heather McVey and her family already lived here. Now 23, she served five years with the Southside Fire Department and Emergency Medical Service, which serves areas of Chatham County outside Savannah. But except when she trained for her initial certification, her experience was with an ambulance crew on the EMS side.
“I learned a good bit,” McVey said. “It’s been a little while since I’ve been on a fire truck, so (it meant) being refreshed on what I needed to get refreshed on and just learning how to be back with the family atmosphere of a fire department.”
Her husband Ryan and their son Myles fastened her badge.
At the Statesboro Fire Department, McVey is now one of two women out of 48 full-time firefighters, a total that includes the officers. Other female firefighters have served in the past with the department, whose two administrative assistants are women. In addition to the full-time employees, the department has about 10 part-time firefighters who work when the full-timers are on vacation or sick leave, said Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams.
“The goal is always to hire the best, most qualified candidate, but we make a conscious effort to recruit across all races, genders, and to try to represent the community that we serve,” he said.
Firefighter Marcell Farmer, 31, previously served about three months with the Savannah Fire Department, where he attained his certification. With the two weeks of recruit class here, he both had a refresher and learned some new things, he said.
“I knew all those things but actually learned how to work more as a team, working together instead of just by yourself,” Farmer said.
The other newly badged SFD members are Forrest Dart, a second-generation firefighter who completed Firefighter I and II certifications at an academy in South Carolina, and Ben Edwards, who brings experience from the Richmond Hill Fire Department.
During recruit training, these firefighters did search and rescue exercises, vehicle extrication and live-burn practice using the Statesboro Fire Department’s new burn facility, Johnson said.
Recruits also learn some apparently simple, Statesboro-specific things, such as how this department loads hose onto a truck. There must be six or seven ways of doing this, but for efficiency, a department needs to do it the same way every time, Grams said.
The recruits gave Johnson a special memento, as his first graduating class in his new role.
Previously a fire apparatus operator, Johnson received his captain’s insignia during the ceremony. Also with help from friends and family members, Jason Barrs was formally promoted to lieutenant, and Ben Adams was recognized for his promotion to fire apparatus operator.
Johnson is not the department’s first training captain, but with his promotion, he and his supervisor, Training Division Chief Bobby Duggar, now constitute that division. But they call on other firefighters in the ranks, who hold specialized certifications in things such as rescue techniques, to assist with recruit classes and continuing training for the whole department.
When Duggar returned to lead the Statesboro Fire Department’s training programs almost four years ago, he and Grams worked out the approach that emphasizes in-house training for several new recruits at a time, Duggar said.
If the department hired just one brand-new recruit at a time, that person might be sent to the state academy at Forsyth, Grams said. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
“We haven’t had to do that yet, so we’re still figuring out how it would work when we have to do that,” Duggar said. “I’d prefer to train them in-house and have them here, and we have very competent and capable instructors, so as much as we can do stuff in-house, we’re going to do it in-house.”
The department also has a new training facility, including its relocated and renovated six-story training tower, a new two-story burn building and pads for vehicle extrications. This recruit class was the first to train in the burn building.
More about the facility will be included in a story next week with statistics form Grams’ recent annual report to City Council.
Currently, the department is two firefighters short of fully staffed. Firefighters receive the city of Statesboro’s full package of employee benefits. The continuing job notice for firefighters on the city’s website lists the starting wage as $10.78 per hour, but some jobs are subject to final-phase raises in the city’s pay plan, effective this month.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.