Fire Chief Mike Burdette said the program bridges the gap between volunteer and full-time firefighters through a state certification program for firefighters.
He said the Pell City Fire Department is the only department in the state to offer the Alabama State Fire College certification program for volunteer firefighters. After certification, men and women can work fulltime as firefighters.
Pell City Firefighter Alan Rickles, who is one of the lead instructors for the program, said the students would go through five weeks of classroom and hands-on training.
“It gives volunteers a chance to be fulltime firefighters without going through recruit school,” Rickles said.
The Alabama Fire College recruit school is twice as long as the five-week Bridge Program.
He said all the volunteer firefighters have already completed the 160 certification, or 160 hours of classroom time, learning the basics in firefighting.
Rickles said they have people attending the five-week course from places like Bay Minette, Foley, Winfield, Fultondale, Leeds, Springville, Riverside and Lincoln.
“It’s cheaper to send someone here for five weeks instead of sending them to the 10-week recruit training course,” Rickles said.
He said some of the people were sent to the Bridge Program by their fire department, and others pay for the course out of their own pocket, which costs about $1,500 with gear rental included.
“I’m a paramedic and I wanted to be a firefighter,” said Cory Ralyea, 41, of Lincoln, who is self-sponsored and paying for the Bridge Program himself. “It’s going to be tough. They expect a lot from you.”
There are no guarantees that those people attending the course will earn Firefighter I and II certifications.
“You have good days and you have bad days,” Ralyea said. “They push you, but they are fair.”
He said the location of the course is convenient for him. Other students from north and south Alabama stay in local hotels while attending the course, which is held 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday each week.
Rickles said students have to complete a physical fitness test even before they attend the Bridge Program. The students also have to complete a state certification exam and pass a skills test before being certified as firefighters.
“It’s like a college class,” Rickles said. “It’s a challenging class. You have to maintain a 70 average on your tests and score a 70 on your state exam.”
Burdette said the Bridge Program is good for firefighters across the state and good for the local fire department. He said it could open new avenues for advanced training for Pell City firefighters.
One thing is for sure; those who complete the Bridge Program will be fully-qualified firefighters.
“They will be ready to go to work when they leave here,” Rickles said.
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