Craig Fire/Rescue rookies are 5 weeks into rigorous training | CraigDailyPress.com

Craig Fire/Rescue rookies are 5 weeks into rigorous training

Lauren Blair

Craig Fire/Rescue rookies demonstrate their competency in getting suited up with the timer running as part of their first month of training. This year's crop of five rookies are about five weeks into their six-month training before they sit for state exams.

— From strapping on a 40-pound, claustrophobia-inducing suit to being blindfolded and left with nothing but a fire hose to guide their way out from an imaginary burning building, being a rookie firefighter is not for the faint of heart.

The training demands half of rookies' weekends for six months and requires the thorough study of a 1,400-page training manual on their own time. But this year, five rookies are diving headlong into the challenge in order to join the ranks of Craig Fire/Rescue.

Kyle Francone, Cory Joyce, Matt Hammer, Robie Petty and Tyler Spencer started training in early January and — if they make it — will take their state tests in June. After another six months as a rookie, they'll have earned the title of firefighter.

"I'm just getting anxious to be able to get through the academy and be able to help how I can," said 29-year-old rookie Matt Hammer, outage coordinator at Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Inc. "It's been busy, but it's going really well."

The training demands upwards of 100 to 150 hours of the rookies' time during the first six months, said Lieutenant Chris Mercer, who leads the trainings alongside Lieutenant Kris Olsen.

The intense time commitment is often the biggest challenge for rookies and the reason behind why only about 50 percent of them make it through their first year, Battalion Chief Hampton said.

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"The time is huge that first year," he said, adding that it can become too much to juggle for some recruits, most of whom have full-time jobs and families. "That's what we usually lose them to."

But about five weeks in, the new crop of rookies is already forming tight bonds with each other and the rest of the fire department.

"Just in the last five weeks, I feel like I could call them part of my family," Hammer said.

Thirty-one-year-old Cory Joyce signed up out of a desire to help the community after moving to Craig from Kremmling about two years ago.

"I always grew up fighting brush fires on ranches… so I've been doing that since I was 10 years old," Joyce said. "Finding all the extra time between working full-time, family and keeping up is a challenge."

Craig Fire/Rescue is currently 28 firefighters strong and covers a 180-square-mile district. In 2016, the department responded to 427 calls, an unusually high number compared to the average 350 calls the department receives annually.

For Mercer, who logs hundreds of volunteer hours running trainings every year alongside Olsen, the satisfaction lies in training rookies to a high standard that exceeds even larger, full-time departments around the state.

"We are respected throughout the state for our level of training and professionalism," Mercer said. "Just to keep that bar set high is worth it."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.