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Wake Forest Fire Academy makes family out of recruits

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WAKE FOREST — A mother was looking through her photo album when she found a picture of her son when he was about 5, wearing a Wake Forest Fire Department helmet and grinning during a parade.

For most people, it would just be a cute picture, but for the Tsantles family, it meant something more.

The boy, now 19, just became a Wake Forest firefighter.

“I don’t even remember that picture, and I don’t remember having an interest in being a firefighter when I was younger,” Jabez Tsantles said. “About 16 is when I really decided the career was for me. That’s when I started volunteering for a local fire department. Then when I was 17, I applied for the Wake Forest Fire Department.”

Tsantles was one of 12 people to graduate from the Wake Forest Fire Academy early this month. The nine-month program began in September.

The department runs academies when they’re needed, according to Battalion Chief Ed Barrett. Due to growth, Wake Forest needed a new ladder company, which opened June 4.

“Getting ready for the staffing of that apparatus, we have the requirement of having 12 additional firefighters. So when you have a need for that many firefighters at one time, one of your options is to run an academy,” Barrett said.

The academy gives recruits basic emergency medical technician, Firefighter I and Firefighter II certifications. Recruits also learn Wake Forest Fire policies and procedures.

North Carolina has multiple fire academies, and Wake County periodically runs one; however, Wake Forest Fire has discovered they get better firefighters when it runs the academy itself, Barrett said.

“All fire departments run things a little bit different,” he said. “You’ll find differences throughout all departments according to their policies and procedures and what is a challenge in their district. … That’s how we do our academy because we can be specific to our district.”

Like most departments, Wake Forest responds to medical calls more than anything else. Around six out of 10 calls are medical-related. It also has structural firefighting, open land firefighting and a water rescue team.

Wake Forest Fire has to do a little bit of everything.

“That’s a firefighter’s job. When 911 is called and you go somewhere, you never know what’s going to be there half the time and you have to figure it out,” Barrett said. “We’re an agency of last resort. If they can’t figure out how to do it, a lot of times they’ll call the fire department.”

The academy is highly competitive to make sure recruits are capable of doing all the things firefighters must do in Wake Forest. Students must maintain a score of 80 or higher on every test as well as complete physical training.

“It’s very challenging. It’s a very compressed time frame for you to learn all the classes you need to get under a certification,” Barrett said. “They’re in class Monday-Friday. They have to come in certain Saturdays for specific training. But after that, they still have to study at home for upcoming tests.”

On top of that is physical training. Firefighters have to complete an obstacle course, rotating through eight stations that mimic actual emergency situations.

That physical training was one of the things that most surprised Tsantles when he began the academy.

“I just had a few basic thoughts and very basic understanding of what the academy would be like,” Tsantles said. “I knew we’d have a lot of training. I knew there would be a lot of physical aspects of it that we would have to put in, but a lot of the training exercise, especially the teamwork exercises that we did as a group, were very surprising.

“The creativity of our instructors was very surprising. When they said we were going to have a day full of physical exercise, they really put a twist on it that involved all team members and really demanded that we work together as a team.”

Part of the goal of the academy is to take a diverse group of people who don’t know each other and turn them into a family, Barrett said.

“They have established bonds that will never be broken again. They’ll be a family for the rest of their life,” he said.

This group of recruits also overcame more than any previous group due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected instructors as well as students.

“A lot of the colleges where we get our contracted classes from were shutting down,” Barrett said. “We only had one person who had a family member who got the COVID, but that caused him to be isolated for two weeks. So that person had the extra challenge of being isolated then having to make up those two weeks when he got back, and he did. He did a very good job. It was a unique academy for sure this year.”

Anyone who meets the 12 probationary firefighters who graduated from this year’s academy would be impressed with them, Barrett said.

“What has been delivered to the academy to Wake Forest Fire Department is a group of highly trained individuals that are highly motivated and looking forward to serving the community of Wake Forest,” he said. “The thing that’s really impressive about them also is the support they got from their families. It takes a lot of time away from their families when they’re at the academy, so when they graduated and their families got to come in and got to see the accomplishment of what they were working on for nine months. It was really good to see.”

While Tsantles doesn’t remember wanting to be a firefighter at 5, he has advice for 16-year-olds who want to be firefighters.

“It has to be something that you are sure about,” he said. “It really is a wonderful profession. I’ve only spent three 24-hour days on the job, so I don’t have a lot of experience, but I would say it truly is a wonderful job that I believe I’m going to enjoy for the rest of my career.”