The Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department is adding much-needed personnel to its ranks.
More than 30 new firefighters have been in the application and training process since July. The process started with 700 hopefuls for the agency that has about 300 employees.
The department has about 40 slots to fill, according to Harmon Brown, the lieutenant of training.
“We have a lot of vacancies,” Fire Chief Chris James said. “Over the past administration, there were retirements and other reasons for people leaving. To reduce overtime, we need to fill them.”
The department advertised the openings and began taking applications in July. A written test reduced the applicants to about 350.
Those candidates were invited to participate in a voluntary three-month physical training course, during which they could prepare for the Candidate Physical Ability Test. This was the first class that implemented the CPAT as part of the application process in Augusta.
The CPAT simulates what a firefighter has to be able to do on the job.
The test requires candidates to step for three minutes on a StairMaster at 60 steps per minute wearing a 50-pound weighted vest and two 25-pound shoulder weights.
Then, they perform seven other physical tests, including a hose drag, ladder raise and equipment carry. The course must be completed in less than 10 minutes, 20 seconds. If they pass the test during a timed practice session, that counts. Otherwise, during the actual test, they have only one chance to pass, Brown said.
“It makes for more physically fit individuals,” Brown said. “This way, we don’t have to worry about the candidate’s physical condition.”
Only about 70 of the 350 passed the CPAT.
Next was the acrophobia test, in which the prospective firefighters are tested on their ability to deal with heights. The candidates climb a 100-foot ladder at a 75 degree angle and lock in with a safety belt at the top. At the top, they lean back and have to clap above their head “three distinctive times,” Brown said. They have to unhook and climb down. All of that has to be finished in less than five minutes. No one failed the acrophobia test.
The physical tests are followed by oral interviews. Each potential firefighter sits down with a panel of interviewers. Brown said candidates were given points added to the ones they received on their written test. At the completion of the oral interviews, candidates are ranked based on the points they received throughout the process.
The top candidates were asked back and had to pass a background check and a tobacco test.
This was the first year potential firefighters had to be tobacco free, Capt. Mel LaPan said.
“It’s good,” he said. “But we lost several (candidates) to that.”
About 35 were offered positions with the condition that they complete the 25-week training course that started in January.
The first week of training was an orientation. For the rest of the training, the prospective firefighters were split into two groups. Half were sent to fire training, and half to EMS training.
Both trainings include written multiple-choice exams that require 75 percent correct answers to pass. The firefighters get one makeup if they fail a test. If they fail it twice, they are out of a job, said one of the new firefighters, 24-year-old Daniel Beerman.
“We have really good teachers,” he said. “They give us every tool we need. Our jobs are in our hands at this point.”
Three have failed out of EMS training but none has failed out of fire training.
“I have wanted to do this my whole life,” Beerman said. “When I was little, all my toys were fire trucks. It’s a career and a calling.”