May 5, 2013

Able to stand the heat

Rachel Brown

— For Chatsworth Fire Department Chief Michael “Moe” Baxter, just showing up to the Georgia Smoke Diver week-long training was the hardest part of completing it.

Smoke Diver, known for its prestige but also for its difficulty as a high quality training course for certified firefighters, has a reputation for pushing its candidates to the brink of exhaustion, and then some. Fail to meet the standards, and you’ll get kicked out of the course. Not that there are any professional penalties to not finishing, but it hurts a firefighter’s pride.

“It’s intimidating. No matter how long you’ve been doing this, it’s intimidating,” said Baxter, who has been a full-time firefighter since 1994. “No one — no one — likes the thought of failing at something, and when something is as difficult as that program is, the possibility of failure is really real.”

It’s real, and it’s a challenge that’s typically taken up not by rookies and not by very experienced veterans but by men in their 20s and 30s with a few years of experience to their credit, said David Rhodes of the Georgia Smoke Diver program, which was held in Dalton in March.

“The class in general is extremely advanced and it’s based off of training philosophies that special forces units use in the military,” Rhodes said. “It’s geared to physically exhaust you to the point where your decision-making is affected, and then push you through firefighting scenarios when you’re already at that physical fatigue state.”

Baxter, 46, was the only firefighter from Whitfield or Murray counties to complete the class this year, organizers said. In addition to classroom work, participants begin their days with about 40 minutes of exercises while wearing protective clothing followed by a three- to four-mile run. It’s important to be tired, Rhodes said, because it’s easier to make potentially dangerous judgment calls while fatigued. The training is designed to help firefighters learn how to push past the fatigue.

Once they’re tired from the activity, they begin the fire drills in which they must demonstrate they’ve mastered a series of tasks and skills such as saving someone under various conditions or using specialized equipment. Participants work in pairs and must know where their partner is at all times throughout the week. Just to be considered for the class, would-be candidates must pass a physical fitness and skills test.

Firefighters pay for their accommodations and food during the class, but it’s otherwise free. Baxter said he might have tried to complete the class sooner had it not gone on hiatus for several years. During that time, he said, other local firefighters were looking for a similar challenge, so in 2005 he started the FLAMES (Firefighters Laboring and Mastering Essential Skills) course. The weekend challenge has drawn firefighters from states across the nation, he said.

Baxter said it began as a course for Chatsworth firefighters, but as other agencies learned about it, they asked to join, and it’s grown every year. Josh Peek from the Dalton Fire Department was the only local firefighter to complete the 17th class held April 5-7 this year. The class started with 17 participants and ended with eight.

Because so many class graduates make a small annual contribution to the fund, new recruits are able to take the class free of charge, Baxter said.

Chatsworth firefighter Robbie Townsend, a FLAMES graduate, said he admires Baxter for his leadership and example. He’s the kind of chief who not only knows how to take on the more glamorous parts of the job, Townsend said, but he also doesn’t mind getting under a fire truck and working on it alongside the lower-ranking guys.

“For him to take on that challenge and going through Smoke Diver at his age ... that kind of speaks of him as a person, I think,” he said. “It was a hard class for me. When I went through it, I was 20-something. I can’t imagine being 46.”

Rhodes said a high percentage of Dalton’s Fire Department has completed the Smoke Diver program. Dalton is the only location other than the Georgia Fire Academy’s training facilities where the classes have been held. The fire academy’s burn building was out of commission for several years, so the class was located in Dalton, Rhodes said.

“We didn’t know how it was going to work because it was such a small campus compared to the state facility,” Rhodes said. “We have loved it here.”

He said the fire academy’s burn building for training is back in commission now, so organizers will evaluate holding future Smoke Diver classes alternately in Dalton and at their own facilities.

“We’re trying to find a good balance to make everybody happy,” Rhodes said.

As for Baxter, he said the biggest thing he took away from the Smoke Diver course was confidence.

“It was everything I thought it would be, and then so much more that I can’t explain it,” Baxter said. “Probably, if not the best, one of the best training evolutions that I have ever been involved in.”