WHEELING — A new class of Wheeling Fire Department firefighters are training to not only fight fires, but also respond to medical calls, hazmat situations and even perform swift water rescues.
It’s all part of being a firefighter in the city populated by 27,052 people.
The new recruits—Philip Namlik, Joshua Dent, Jake Stewart, Lukas Dewitt and Ryan Cook—have been busy with classroom work and hands-on training at the Wheeling Fire Department’s headquarters in Center Wheeling. The department’s trainer is Assistant Chief Dave Harmon.
For Namlik, joining the department was a decision spurred by a friend who already works there. Namlik, 32, is Proctor resident and a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Namlik said he likes the idea of getting to help people as a firefighter.
“I really like it. There’s a lot more to it than I thought,” he said, adding there has been a large volume of information to learn already.
Cook, 36, is a lifelong resident of Washington, Pennsylvania.
He said in high school he started EMT training and then joined a volunteer fire department as a junior firefighter. He volunteered for the Mount Pleasant Township Volunteer Department in Pennsylvania, which eventually became a paid fire department that established a hazmat crew.
He later began working for a hazmat cleaning company and then realized he should become a professional firefighter. That same day he saw the notice for Wheeling advertising its testing for new recruits.
Though he worked as a firefighter before, joining the Wheeling Fire Department is much different, he said.
“The buildings are very different,” he said, referring to the many brick structures and taller buildings. “There’s still a lot to learn here and I’m looking forward to it.”
Cook said there is also a good sense of camaraderie and teamwork. The first thing the recruits do each morning is workout together for an hour, something that has helped them bond, he noted.
Harmon said the department tests every three years and from that testing compiles a list of potential recruits to draw from. New recruits must be at least 18 years old and no older than 35 on testing day.
As existing firefighters retire or leave for other reasons, the department will choose their top picks to be next in line for open jobs. Preference is typically given to those who scored the highest on the initial civil service test, but Harmon said they also take past experience, such as having firefighter, hazmat or medic training, into consideration as well. Interviews of potential recruits are conducted, too.
Once candidates get through that process, they must pass a written test and agility test. They are given a booklet to study for the written test. The physical test includes stations that mimic the type of work that a firefighter must do while on the job. All must be completed one after another within a certain amount of time. The final leg is a swimming test.
Harmon said the swimming component is important because of the city’s proximity to the Ohio River and the many creeks and streams in the area. The department’s swift water rescue team is sometimes called upon to rescue people from the river and is used during floods as well.
Examples of the agility stations include hiking a hose up a set of stairs, hiking a dummy up a set of stairs and a forceful entry station that involves using a sledge hammer. The tests are the same for men and women vying for a position.
Harmon said there are people who fail the agility test not because each station is difficult, but because they must be done one after another.
Harmon noted the job can be a stressful one and some new recruits end up deciding it is not for them and quit. But most firefighters end up staying until retirement.
“It’s a very rewarding job. … They never hate coming here to do their job,” he said. “I would say 90% stay and make a career of it.”
Harmon said though the job, which has a starting salary of about $41,000 a year, is challenging, it can also be exciting.
“I never thought I’d pull someone out of the river,” he said. “I never thought I would be on the detail to protect the president.”
Harmon said when a sitting president comes to the city the fire department is tasked with making sure there is a hazmat team ready for any potential situation.
A Wheeling Fire Department ambulance also is part of the motorcade as well. Harmon noted when then-President Trump came to WesBanco Arena he got to be inside the command center with the Secret Service agents and other personnel.
For the new recruits, such adventures might be a ways off. After their initial eight weeks of training, they will be probationary firefighters for three years. After those initial eight weeks or even towards that end of that time, they will be permitted to fight a fire.
“You have to have a certain personality to do this job. You have to be motivated and make quick decisions,” Harmon said.
He noted that new recruits have to remember that a common day for a firefighter is often the worst day in someone else’s life, such as their house catching fire.
He noted his most important piece of advice to new recruits is to “never stop learning.”
“The day you think you know everything about firefighting is the day you should leave,” Harmon said, quoting one of his past fire chiefs.