WHEELING – A new class of firefighters from the Wheeling Fire Department are training not only to fight fires, but also to respond to medical calls, hazmat situations and even perform fast water rescues.
It’s all part of being a firefighter in the city of 27,052 people.
The new recruits – Philip Namlik, Joshua Dent, Jake Stewart, Lukas Dewitt and Ryan Cook – have been kept busy with classroom work and hands-on training at Wheeling Fire Department headquarters in Center Wheeling. The department’s trainer is Deputy Chief Dave Harmon.
For Namlik, joining the department was a decision driven by a friend who already works there. Namlik, 32, is a Proctor resident and a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Namlik said he liked the idea of helping people as a firefighter.
“I really like it. There’s a lot more to it than I thought,” he said, adding that there was already a large volume of information to learn.
Cook, 36, is a lifelong resident of Washington, Pennsylvania.
He said that 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 created a hazmat team.
Later, he started working for a hazmat cleanup company, then realized he had to become a professional firefighter. That same day, he saw Wheeling’s notice announcing its testing for new recruits.
Although he worked as a firefighter before, joining the Wheeling Fire Department is very 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 was also a good sense of camaraderie and teamwork. The first thing rookies do every morning is practice together for an hour, which has helped them bond, he noted.
Harmon said the department tests every three years and from those tests it compiles a list of potential recruits to draw from. New recruits must be at least 18 years old and no older than 35 on the day of the test.
As existing firefighters retire or leave for other reasons, the department will choose their top picks to be next in line for vacancies. Preference is usually given to those with the highest score on the initial civil service test, but Harmon said they also consider past experience, such as firefighter, hazmat or of doctor. Interviews with potential recruits are also conducted.
Once candidates have completed this process, they must pass a written test and an agility test. A booklet is given to them to prepare for the written test. The physical test includes stations that mimic the type of work a firefighter must do while on the job. All of them must be completed one after the other within a certain period of time. The final step is a swim test.
Harmon said the swimming component is important due to the city’s proximity to the Ohio River and the many creeks and creeks in the area. The department’s swift water rescue team is sometimes called upon to rescue people from the river and is also used during floods.
Examples of agility stations include a pipe hike up a flight of stairs, a dummy hike up a flight of stairs, and a power entry station that involves the use of a 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 have to be done one after the other.
Harmon noted that the job can be stressful and some new hires end up deciding it’s not for them and quitting. But most firefighters end up staying until retirement.
“It’s very rewarding work. … They never hate coming here to do their job,” he said. “I would say 90% stay and make a career out of it.”
Harmon said that while the job, which has a starting salary of around $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 town, the fire department is responsible for ensuring there is a hazmat team ready to deal with any potential situation.
A Wheeling Fire Department ambulance is also part of the motorcade. Harmon noted that when then-President Trump came to WesBanco Arena, he may have been inside the command center with the Secret Service agents and other personnel.
For new recruits, such adventures could be a long way off. After their first eight weeks of training, they will be trainee firefighters for three years. After these initial eight weeks or even towards the end of this period, they will be allowed 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 need to remember that an ordinary day for a firefighter is often the worst day of someone else’s life, like their house burning down.
He noted that his most important advice to new recruits is to “never stop learning.”
“The day you think you know everything about firefighting is the day you should go,” Harmon said, quoting one of his former fire chiefs.