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By Jim Ignasher
June 5, 2017, was a milestone in the lives the Smithfield Fire Department’s newest recruits, for it marked their first day on the job, but they won’t be fighting fires or answering rescue calls just yet. There’s a rigorous training program to complete first.
The world of firefighting has evolved over the years, and the training and preparation these rookies will receive will in some ways be very different than those who’ve come before them. For starters, they will be attending the newly established Rhode Island Fire Academy located in Exeter as members of Class 002. The academy’s very first class graduated a few weeks ago, and these new recruits will be students in the second.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Captain Derek Keene, Director of Training for the Smithfield Fire Department, referring to a time not long ago when there was no statewide fire academy. What many may not be aware of is that although police officers must graduate from the Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy to be certified, such was not the case, until recently, for municipal firefighters. Before the establishment of the fire academy, each fire department conducted its own individual training program.
At the eight-week academy, the recruits will receive intensive training in all aspects of firefighting, including dealing with hazardous materials incidents, mass casualty incidents, and even terrorism. When they return to the department after graduation, they will receive further on the job training which will include assignments in various divisions of the department from rescue and engine companies to administrative and fire prevention duties to give them first-hand knowledge of how each division operates and works in conjunction with the others. Even after successfully finishing these rotations, they will still have to complete a one-year probationary period before being appointed as permanent members of the department.
The new recruits are Eric J. Barrows, 30, a Paramedic from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Mark T. Euell, 22, of Warwick, an Emergency Medical Technician with experience in the Charlestown R.I. rescue, and Thomas W. Rotondo III, 30, of Smithfield, also a certified EMT. Each is looking forward to dedicating themselves to serving the people of Smithfield.
I had the honor of meeting these men on their first day at Fire Headquarters in Greenville. I was invited into the classroom by Captain Keene, and when I entered, they immediately stood at attention. I noted that each was well groomed, and wearing a suit and tie. This, I was told, was all part of their orientation to the fire department. If a ranking firefighter of the department had entered the room, they would have done the same but saluted as well.
The three men were selected from a pool of sixty applicants and had to pass a rigorous hiring process which included written exams, background investigations, swimming and physical agility tests, oral interviews, medical and psychological testing.
Their first day on the job was more of an orientation to the Smithfield Fire Department’s way of doing things. Their day officially began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and went on to include instruction in rules and regulations, department policies, and filling out a certain amount of paperwork.
And there was unannounced “testing” as well. For example, Captain Keene explained how each had been told to park across the street from Headquarters before reporting to the front door of the fire station. (This is the door used by the public. They will have to earn the right to enter from the rear parking lot as the permanent firemen do.) Captain Keene observed as the recruits exited their vehicles and walked as a group to the corner of Smith Avenue and Putnam Pike and crossed at the light, instead of “jaywalking” across Rt. 44. When they arrived at the front door Captain Keene informed then, “You’ve just passed your first test!” There will, of course, be others, so the recruits will have to stay sharp.
One important trait that Captain Keene wants to instill in all new hires is teamwork. A fire department eats, works, and sleeps together, and must be able to work as a team in an emergency situation. All 58 sworn members of the department have to know they can depend on each other.
Speaking of meals, I’m told it’s incumbent of these new recruits, who lack any seniority, to brush up on their food preparation skills, for they will be doing some of the cooking no matter what shift they were assigned.
Fire departments are organizations that value history and tradition, which is why new members are given an historical overview of the department’s origins and those who came before them. One item of discussion was Smithfield’s first fire engine, the infamous “Water Witch”; a 19th-century horse-drawn pumper that required a team of a dozen or more strong and energetic men to operate. Such a piece would only be seen in a museum today, but it illustrates to the recruits how firefighting technology has changed. Other items of interest include 20th-century photos of vintage Smithfield fire engines, realizing of course, that there will come a time when today’s modern fire engines will look just as obsolete to future Smithfield firefighters yet unborn.
Sadly, one segment of the department’s history emphasizes the dangers of the job and points out that four of Smithfield’s firefighters, Raymond W. Segee, Robert D. Brown, Eugene E. Dorgan, and Leo Kennedy Sr., lost their lives in the line of duty.
We at the Smithfield Times wish these new members long, successful, and safe careers. Perhaps there is a future chief among them. Time will tell.