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DALTON, Ga. - Lt. Brandon Bray kneels, sweat dripping down his face, blackened soot lacing the collar of his firefighter's uniform.

The veteran firefighter looks exhausted - and he isn't even one of the students.

Twenty-eight firefighters selected from a pool of 100 began the Georgia Smoke Diver training course here on Sunday. By Monday night, six already had dropped out.

Students were not allowed to talk to the media during training.

Lt. Bray, an Army veteran who graduated from the course in 2006, said the training was "probably the toughest thing I've ever done in my life."

The course is designed to reinforce and test safety skills for firefighters who can face a range of scenarios, from massive building fires to tornadoes, collapsed structures or terrorist attacks, said Dalton Deputy Fire Chief Gary Baggett.

"We want to make a safer, smarter firefighter," Chief Baggett said. "The firefighter's firefighter."

About half the class usually drops out of the highly demanding six-day course, Mr. Wall said. But those that finish return to their departments with confidence and knowledge in life-saving techniques.

"Look at a graduate list and see how many went on to be chiefs," Mr. Wall said.

For the first time in the history of the state training, the class is being held away from the Georgia Fire Academy, which is now located in Forsyth, Ga. The burn building at the academy was condemned and a new one is being built, forcing officials to find a temporary location for training, said academy director David Wall in a telephone interview.

Trainees start each day with an obstacle course, then 45 minutes of physical conditioning, including miles of running. The day really gets rolling with a constant rotation of skill drills such as hauling a wounded firefighter a certain distance, searching a burn building filled with smoke using thermal imaging cameras, following lines of snaking hoses in blacked-out, wet and smoking rooms.

On Monday night, the trainees got a short dinner break after 10-hour day before heading to the pool to learn how to swim in full gear, a drill that tests the confidence firefighters have in their skills and equipment, Chief Baggett said.

The five-hose drill set for Wednesday will tax many trainees to their limit, the chief said. It involves entering the burn building and tracing an exit hose-by-hose for each of the five hoses tangled throughout.

Two to three instructors will be with each trainee for safety. Due to the strenuous nature of the training there are often five instructors for every trainee, Chief Baggett said.

Smoke Diver history

* 1978 - First Smoke Diver class in Georgia, eight trainees graduate

* 1987 - Georgia Smoke Divers graduates its 345th trainee, starts pilot program in Snoqualmis, Wash.

* 1995 - Georgia Fire Academy drops the Smoke Diver program

* 1999 - A cadre of Smoke Divers maintains training and updates procedures in case program returns

* 2003 - Georgia Smoke Diver Association revived, classes begin at the fire academy

* 2009 - First-ever Smoke Diver course held outside of the fire academy in Dalton

Source: www.georgiasmokediver.com

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