DALTON, Ga. -- The men in masks and oxygen tanks dropped the ladder into the hole and shimmied down toward the beeping alarm.
"What you got down there?" another firefighter yelled from the top of the collapsed building.
After harnessing the fallen firefighter and tying knot after knot around a metal ring, the men on the other end heaved the ladder up and a nearly 200-pound dummy appeared, tied to the other end. This was one of three drills experienced firefighters from across the nation had to complete Tuesday as part of a weeklong training course to become certified as smoke divers.
The rigorous 60-hour training by the Georgia Smoke Diver Association, conducted at one of Dalton's fire department stations, tests both strength and mental agility, officials said. And few such courses across the country allow for training that poses real dangers to firefighters in a controlled environment.
More than a third of the firefighters who qualify and begin the training drop out before the end, fire department spokesman Bruce Frazier said. This week's training class, which started with 34 people Sunday, had dropped to 26 by Tuesday. The course continues until Friday, when the remaining firefighters get their badge numbers and graduate.
"This is the most intense training you'll get," said Charlie Long, a Georgia Smoke Diver instructor from Atlanta.
Officials say this training is important for firefighters to ensure their safety in dangerous rescues. Just this week, two Red Bank firefighters were injured when a ceiling collapsed on them while they battled a house fire.
As fire prevention gets more efficient, firefighters are dousing fewer flames, Dalton Deputy Fire Chief Gary Baggett said, which means they are getting less experience. This training teaches them to react quickly in strenuous situations and uses real smoke and sprinklers.
In one of the drills firefighters had to climb through smoke-filled rooms with water from a sprinkler system dousing their eyes, making it impossible to see. Then they climbed through a second-story window and slid down a wall.
Dalton hosts the training by the Smoke Diver Association twice a year and takes experienced firefighters through competitive application, Baggett said. The training -- which costs $750 for out-of-state attendees and $350 for in-state ones -- mainly is paid for by individual fire departments, but some of the firefighters may pay their own way.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick 423-757-6659 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.