LAFD Capt. Dan Garcia puts on his helmet prior to heading up into the training tower to take his Criterion Task Test Saturday at Station 2 on DP Road. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
LAFD Driver Engineer Josh Cooper drives the steel bar on the Keiser sled five feet home Saturday morning during his Criterion Task Test. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
LAFD Capt. Van Leimer finishes dragging a hose during Saturday’s Criterion Task Test at the LAFD Training Center on DP Road. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
LAFD Firefighter Rebecca Calvert drags a 175lb Rescue Randy dummy 100 feet during the last section of her Criterion Task Test Saturday morning. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
As the application time frame for Los Alamos Fire Department’s Academy 31 draws to a close at 11:59 p.m. tonight, Deputy Chief Wendy Servey anticipates that the number of people applying will be hundreds fewer than in the past. On Friday afternoon, Los Alamos County reached out to local and out-of-town media inviting them to the LAFD Training Center at Station 2 on DP Road Saturday morning to watch as firefighters took their Criterion Task Test (CTT).
As of Saturday morning, Chief Servey said only 70 applications had been received but that doesn’t mean LAFD will have 70 people to joining Academy 31. The written test will eliminate 30 percent of the recruits and the required physical examination may knock out a couple more if they have medical problems or doctors don’t feel they would be a good candidates.
The CTT being taken by current LAFD firefighters on Saturday is the same one that has to be taken by applicants in addition to one that requires them to run 1.5 miles in 15 minutes. If current staff hit 7 minutes or more on the CTT, they have to go into a fitness program, Servey said.
The CTT is comprised of five stations simulating fire ground activities. A firefighter wearing about 50lbs in personal protective equipment and a Scott air-pak weighing about 19lbs, carries a high-rise hose pack weighing about 42lbs to the top floor of the training structure. Then a 42-lb donut hose roll is hoisted from the ground up to that level by rope and dragged into the structure.
After descending the staircase to ground level, the firefighter gets to swing a 9lb shot mallet striking the 160lb steel bar on the Keiser, pushing it five feet horizontally before walking/running to a fire hydrant and advancing a hose 75 feet. And that’s not all; the final task is to drag a 175lb Rescue Randy dummy 100 feet. It is an amazing and impressive routine to watch.
LAFD Firefighter/Paramedic Rick Acedo documents the times during testing Saturday morning. Aceda will be one of the instructors for the upcoming Academy 31. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
LAFD Training Division Chief Ben Stone drags the rescue dummy 100 feet to finish his CTT Saturday. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Training Division Chief Ben Stone, who joined LAFD in 2003, said the nation’s fire service is no different from business.
“We’re struggling to find firefighters. In the last several years, we have seen a tremendous decrease in applicants willing to serve the community. These issues have been compounded by COVID by way of a fear of becoming sick. When I started in Los Alamos, we had several hundred applicants, and we could put each applicant through a rigorous testing process, so we could hire the best of the candidates. That year we hired nine firefighters. Today we sit just over 24 hours away from closing our current application period with less than 100 candidates,” Chief Stone said. “We have been approved to hire 30 firefighters and we need every single one.”
LAFD Firefighter Matthew Rodriguez grabs the rescue dummy under the armpits in a show of strength for the final section of his CTT Saturday, watched by Chief Ben Stone. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Watching the testing Saturday are, from left, Firefighter Chuck Cummings, Deputy Chief Wendy Servey, Capt. Raul Manzanares and Chief Troy Hughes. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Chief Servey said when she got hired there were 800 people testing.
“If we actually do this right, we need about 200 good, qualified applicants to hire about 30. We are only graduating five cadets on Oct. 14 from the last academy and that’s not going to help with staffing. We’re so short-staffed that we’re thinking about changing around our schedule a little bit where we’ve never done before,” she said.
Many LAFD firefighters are working their 48 hour shift and then being held over for another 48 hours on overtime straight after their regular shift, which means they’re working four straight days in a row day and night and then they get two days off, Servey said.
“So it’s really wreaking havoc with their families. We’ve been doing this the last two years because we are so short-staffed. Because of COVID we did not run an academy – the County shut it down – so we’re behind the eight ball. We just had three people put in for retirement. We are holding 20-25 people over after their regular shift, which is more than a third of the shift, to do overtime. We need people. We need more applicants but our hands are kind of tied,” she said.
If the Department can’t keep up with the hiring need, Chief Servey said they will have to run another academy right after Academy 31.
“We realize we’re behind so we’re just going to keep running academies. It’s not going to make a dent if we keep just graduating five. This last academy started with 10 and it dwindled down to five. One person quit within the first two days; they said it was too hard, another quit because they didn’t want to cut their hair. They knew what they were getting into,” she said.
Chief Stone said LAFD has been able to meet every challenge encountered over the last several years; however, with retirements and low hiring numbers staff is working nearly one and a half times the hours that they typically would.
“We hope that our partners in the community will share with their friends and family that our applications close Monday at midnight and to apply with one of the best departments in the state,” he said.
On Oct. 14, the academy will transition to having a new training captain, Capt. Tim Johnson, who has previously run academies for the department. He will be joined by Firefighter/Paramedic Rick Acedo and Firefighter David Baca.
LAFD Firefighter Rebecca Calvert gets herself psyched up to take her CTT Saturday morning. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Among those taking the five-part CTT Saturday was 42-year old Firefighter Rebecca Calvert, a structural engineer and welder, who joined LAFD a year ago.
“By far of the three careers I’ve had, this has been the best group of people. From Day 1, you’re part of the family. That’s really what makes this job different from anywhere I’ve ever worked,” she said.
Prior to going through the LAFD academy, Calvert was a volunteer firefighter in Regina, north of Cuba in Sandoval County and had responded to about 120 calls the year before the academy. She said she fell in love with firefighting.
“At Regina, there were only a handful of people that would respond – maybe four or five usually if we’re lucky for a structure fire. There have been plenty of times where I was the only one- taking the engine by myself,” she said. She was fire chief-certified and was an EMT prior to taking the big step of applying to LAFD
“I got handed a flyer for the LAFD academy at a volunteer fire department meeting and I made a joke of it. I said obviously they aren’t looking for me, that they wanted a bunch of 20-year old guys, not a 40-year old woman. And one of my friends had a friend at LAFD who called and said there was no age limit. So I applied and really never expected to make it but I don’t give up and I just kept on showing up to work,” Calvert said.
She said it took her six months to actually pass the entrance exam for any fire department.
“I applied in Albuquerque and Farmington and failed both times. It’s easier if you’re larger, muscular, taller – you have an advantage – so for me that was hard. I used to get up at 6 o’clock every morning and go run stairs in bunker gear with a hose pack just to be able to pass the test to get in and where a lot of people can slack off a little. I had a college degree before I came in so I was used to the written test part of it. I had also taken the two major sections of the curriculum – I was fire-chief certified and I was an EMT already, so the written exam was pretty straight-forward. The physical part of it was the only part where I really had to struggle through. There were days!!” Calvert said.
Since getting out of the academy, Calvert says now it’s about learning how to do the job with your crew, that dynamic with the people you work with every day and then the application of all that stuff you spent six months learning.
“Every time you go on a call, it’s different and the more you go on the more things you have to draw on to make you more efficient and effective when you actually respond. So we’re looking at more academies coming out and a whole bunch of new people coming in. For us, in our position, we have to get better at our jobs so we can help the people coming in,” she said. “This is the best job you could ever hope for when you get out, but even the academy, as hard as it was, you end up missing it. It’s one of those accomplishments in your life that you’ll always have. I made it through all of that. It’s one of those things that’s so hard it’s worth doing and once you get through it you have it forever.”
Calvert said her message to anyone who’s even thinking about the LAFD academy, is to “go for it”.
“Jump in with both feet and give it a shot. I was 41 when I started the academy, and 128lbs. If I can do it, anyone can do it. You just have to want it. One thing you can’t do is quit,” she said.
If you are interested in applying to LAFD, go to lacnm.com/LAFD-Apply
LAFD Capt. Raul Manzanares winds down after finishing his test. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Firefighter Rebecca Calvert swings the mallet to strike the Keiser sled. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
LAFD Firefighter Michael McElyea drags the rescue dummy Saturday morning. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com