DALTON, Ga. - On Sunday there were 29, on Monday the number dropped to 25 and by Wednesday only 15 firefighters remained in the grueling Georgia Smoke Divers Class, all determined to walk away with a coveted black T-shirt given to graduates.
"This is arguably the most difficult fire school, probably, in the country," said Dalton Deputy Fire Chief Gary Baggett, who has helped teach the class for more than 20 years. "We make good firefighters better."
This year's 43rd class is the fourth held in Dalton. The class was moved from the Georgia Fire Academy in Forsyth, Ga., after the academy's burn building was condemned.
Firefighters from Georgia, Colorado, Indiana and Louisiana participate in intensive exercise, training and hands-on fire drills, said Bruce Frazier, spokesman for the Dalton Fire Department.
Every day starts at 7 a.m. with calisthenics, an obstacle course and a three-mile run. It ends 12 or even 14 hours later, with firefighters dressed in full gear most of the day. About 70 instructors - all previous graduates of the class, all volunteers and all wearing black T-shirts - help with the class over the course of six days, Frazier said.
On Wednesday afternoon, the firefighters lined up to enter a smoke-filled building at the Dalton Police Department's training facility for the five-hose drill. After climbing a ladder to enter the two-story building, firefighters had to find their way out by following a tangle of five hoses one by one to the end.
Even through their masks, they looked exhausted. No interviews are permitted during the week of training.
"I've been inside [the building] and it's not like the movies - you can't see a thing," Frazier said.
The five-hose drill is one of the most difficult, Baggett said. Drop the hose one time and there is no way to find the same one again, he said.
The point of the week is to push firefighters to their limits and then train them to make good decisions, Baggett said.
"When they are fighting a fire, they have to make critical decisions when they are physically and mentally exhausted," he said. "And that is when they make relatively simple mistakes. We train them not to make mistakes that may cost them their lives."
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-980-5824.