Less than a year ago, a group of high school students stood in a ragged line under a hot September sun, struggling under the bulk of a pressurized, 200-pound fire hose. Looking lopsided in oversized black boots, their cheeks pink under oxygen masks, the students seemed barely capable of walking without tripping, let alone saving someone.
Today, 10 of those students are seasoned volunteer firefighters in Anne Arundel County - graduates of an innovative program designed to attract young volunteers into fire service at a time when volunteer ranks are dwindling in Maryland and across the nation. In exchange for their participation, the students receive high school and college credit in a partnership between the county school system and Fire Department.
Adam Knicley, who acknowledged being nervous during the first training fire, will soon spend his free time at a fire station in Crofton, looking forward to the ringing of the alarm bell.
Jason Fobare, who struggled with written exams - forcing him to study harder than most other cadets - passed all the state boards and is fully certified as a firefighter and emergency medical technician.
And Megan McDonough, the only female in the group, became the class leader.
They are the second group of cadets to graduate from the county fire academy and will go on to become members of fire stations across the county.
Nine months ago, their instructor, Tim Spigelmire, covered their eyes and threw all of their gear into a big pile of jackets, pants and air tanks. The cadets were told to find the necessities for the job in five minutes - five minutes that turned into chaos with boots flying and cadets fumbling.
Only a few caught on to the lesson: Because they couldn't see, they needed to communicate and help each other by calling out when they found an extra mask or asking whether anyone had felt an extra jacket.
It has been a long year.
Once, a few cadets accidentally unraveled 1,000 feet of hose on a truck. The entire group had to rerack the line - carefully folding the hose into an accordionlike configuration.
"We all suffered if one person screwed up," McDonough said.
Mistakes became less frequent. The speed drills got better. Hesitancy was replaced with confidence. Nervous giggles subsided. Teen-agers with curfews and part-time jobs took on responsibilities that few adults have; they are charged with saving lives.
Kenneth Hyde Jr., who will be a senior at Northeast High School in the fall, is following in the footsteps of his father, who is president of the Riviera Beach Volunteer Fire Company.
`It's in the blood'
"It's in the blood," Hyde said. "I've wanted to do this since I was born."
Growing up, he spent many weekends and afternoons at the firehouse "running around like crazy." As he matured, his love for firetrucks and sirens became "a love for helping people."
"I want to protect the community," said Hyde, who grew up in Riviera Beach.
Knicley, who recently graduated from Southern High School, said fire fighting was something he learned to love.
"There's the thrill of being a firefighter," Knicley said. "But I hope someday someone will say, `Thank you. You saved my life.'"
Knicley, who plans to attend Anne Arundel Community College in the fall, had never seen a raging fire like the ones he encountered at the fire academy's training building, which is set on fire for practice.
Although most cadets are from "fire families," growing up with relatives in fire and rescue service, for others, it was a new experience.
"They've come a long way," said Spigelmire, who as instructor oversaw the students' training six hours each week and one Saturday a month.
It was a more rigorous schedule than many high school students maintain, and longer than most basic training courses for adult volunteers, which last several nights a week and weekends over three to four months.
The training took its toll. In September when they started training, 13 were in the group of cadets, but three dropped out. Each day meant more pushups, laps around the training complex and jumping jacks.
Spigelmire lectured from a set of manuals, each containing information that could mean the difference between life and death for victims of fire or accidents. Part drill sergeant, part guidance counselor, he encouraged, critiqued, yelled and laughed - sometimes in one continuous stream.
"I'm someone who they sometimes hate," Spigelmire said. "Other times, I'm who they come to when they have problems at school or with boyfriends or girlfriends. I'm a catchall for all of that."
The cadets spent nearly 300 hours in training - learning how to handle fire hoses, to operate ladders and to understand the chemistry and behavior of fire.
They formed attack patterns, swarming into a burning building, performing rescue missions to save a mannequin - knowing well that one day it could be a child or a grandparent or mother or father instead.