Story and Photos By R. Nicanor Santana
Thick smoke from burning wood escapes through gaps of the five-story concrete building in a simulated fire at Santa Ana College’s Fire Academy in Huntington Beach Monday. Company Captain Elysia Bernal, dismantles the roof on the fourth floor to ventilate the building with the help from other students, while wearing a full-body firefighter gear including a 30 lb. air tank.
Of the 47 students in the Academy, Bernal is the only female in the program. These students are part of the largest and oldest fire tech program in California.
Months prior, she was training cutting the metal top off an overturned crashed vehicle with an air chisel. She practiced breaking car windows without shattering the glass by using a sharp spring loaded punch, opened jammed car doors and contained dry grass around burnt areas at Tonner Canyon.
“I would say there is no advantage to being a female in the fire academy. I’m still required to pass the same physical and academic tests as the guys, nothing is made easier for me, which is how it should be,” Bernal said.
The Basic Fire Academy 168 is part of SAC’s Fire Technology Department. It was established in 1967 and currently has 1,620 students.
The BFA 168 has one Recruit Captain and six Company Captains among 47 students in the Academy. The 14-week program trains the future firefighters in personal fire safety, equipment training and physical fitness. The training begins at 6 a.m. at the Joint Powers Training Center in Huntington Beach. Physical training exercises include carrying 50 lb. hoses, raising ladders 50 feet high as fast as they can, and running up and down a four-story stairway.
The BFA 168’s motto is “One Team, One Fight.”
“I like being around people with a common goal and who are always there for you when you need them. That’s just part of the firefighter mindset. To be there when times are the worst and to do anything to help make the situation better,” Corey Hughes, SAC Fire Academy student said.
After joining the military at the age of 19, and being deployed overseas, Hughes pursued his childhood dream of becoming a firefighter like his father, who graduated from the Academy. His wife and two children live in Tennessee, where he was stationed but will move to California to watch him graduate.
The emergency responses vary from handling hazardous material to terrorist attacks, urban search and rescues and being shipped off to other countries to help.
“Firefighters are so far ahead everybody else when it comes to being called for emergencies. We give them lessons, tools and knowledge and they figuratively put them in a bucket. We give them a situation, not directions, just an objective,” Captain Gary Dominguez said
The SAC Fire Technology Department uses the latest equipment and technology in their field through monetary assistance from the college.
Following exact orders and quick thinking is vital to being a first responder to emergency calls and the Academy emphasizes self-confidence and teamwork according the programs pamphlet.
Those instructing the course include active Fire Captains from Orange and Los Angeles County, most who have graduated from the Academy and have about 20 years of experience.
There are 22 subject areas that students must master like combined drilling of vehicles in accidents, ventilation routes, fire control in various types of weather, and forcible entry to buildings such as warehouses and apartment complexes.
“The SAC program has one of the best reputations and it is clear to see why. The instructors are some of the best in their field, with years of experience. They pride themselves on keeping the standards of the academy high and producing the best trained recruits,” Bernal said.
On average, 95 percent will pass the final exam.
Graduating students will receive the California Firefighter I certification on Dec. 5 to apply firehouses in the majority of cities in California. There is a one year probation, responding to calls, upon hire. Over 60 percent are expected to keep their jobs.
“We have a great program that is head and shoulders with other programs in the state. Our program is very robust and we welcome the newcomers,” Dominguez said.