PIEDMONT — Blake Headrick crawled on his hands and knees to follow winding loops of a 400-foot fire hose, all while wearing 60 pounds of gear.
The 18-year-old Piedmont High School senior’s air mask was blackened out, preventing him from seeing. To make it to the end of the hose, he had to feel it out.
By the end, the 6-foot-1-inch, 238-pound football player was drenched in sweat.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t know it was going to be this hard,” Headrick said of the training to escape a house fire.
Headrick and three other Piedmont High students are the first members of a Piedmont Fire Department pilot training program this year. The program’s goal is to recruit and maintain more firefighters for the department while offering a new career option for students.
“Our manpower has fallen off over the past few years,” said Fire Chief Mike Ledbetter. “This program is a way to fix that ... we’re trying to recruit people and get them interested and trying to train them too.”
The Fire Department has five full-time, seven part-time, and 15 volunteer firefighters.
The Fire Department began working with the high school in the pilot program at the start of the fall semester. The students take the 1 1/2-hour class at the Fire Department at the start of every school day. The program is modeled after one the Anniston Fire Department started two years ago.
Butch Tolbert, assistant fire chief and one of the program’s instructors, said most of the department’s volunteers have day jobs out of town, meaning their ability to respond to fire calls is limited.
“We had to come up with some way to start recruiting,” Tolbert said.
Tolbert said the program is a combination of written work and hands-on training, such as hose, ladder and search-and-rescue drills. Tolbert said students who complete the program in May will have earned state-recognized volunteer firefighter status. After that, they can work as volunteer firefighters for the department or enter a more intense, five-week training program to become career firefighters, Tolbert said.
Headrick said he signed up for the program because he always wanted to be a firefighter.
“I thought this would be a good chance to try it out,” he said. “I like it a lot ... there’s a lot to it, but I can handle it.”
Sydney Pointer, 18, said he signed up for the program mainly out of curiosity.
“I thought I’d try it because it felt like it might be something I’d want to do,” he said of being a firefighter. “I’m still not sure yet, I haven’t decided.”
Ledbetter said the program has been a success so far and expects it to grow for years to come.
“We’ve heard nothing but good things from parents and school officials,” Ledbetter said. “They’re telling us to make a bigger class because they expect bigger participation next year.”