Mississippi firefighters push themselves to the limit to attain elite Smoke Diver designation

Updated: Oct. 22, 2019 at 10:36 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - “He’s the only reason y’all made it to the correct floor, because he’s listening to instruction.”

The Mississippi State Fire Academy instructor’s words could be heard loud and clear even though he was speaking through the mask for his self-contained breathing apparatus. He gave one firefighter instructions to lead the other two next time before calling for the next group.

These firefighters are on their second day of what many say will be the most grueling training of their career. They are testing their own mettle, trying to become Smoke Divers.

“They are elite structural firefighters, and, yes, it does put a person just a step above the rest,” said instructor Shannon Sandridge.

The class is optional. It puts extreme pressure on the firefighters and shows them what they have on the inside.

“This course takes their basic skills they learned in basic firefighter course and puts them into an environment that’s really stressful; makes them do a lot of critical thinking,” said MSFA Director Terry Wages.

Some firefighters don’t believe it could possibly be that hard. But it is. On Tuesday, the six firefighters that were left in the class that began with 20 just 24 hours before were tasked with a simulation of a firefighter down inside a burning building.

The building is pitch dark and combines all manner of obstacles on the inside that the Smoke Diver candidates must navigate going in, and then bring a dummy wearing turnout gear back through.

One of those obstacles is a slide and they must climb back up it with the dummy. Another simulates a roof that has burned through in patches. One bridge-like obstacle suddenly has no floor.

It emphasizes teamwork, which becomes more important as the class gets smaller. There have been Smoke Diver classes that ended with just one or two who make it through. Some have had none. But Wages said over the last 43 years, more than 1,000 firefighters have passed.

Some have asked the Fire Academy if it’s gotten too hard. Instructors say no. Wages said he thought about that possibility when he first took the job as MSFA director, but then he thought of the men and women who had gone before and completed the course as is. He said he feels the fire service owes it to them to maintain the standard that they set.

Most importantly, over those 40 years, not a single Smoke Diver has died in the line of duty.

“We hope it’s because of the training they received here and the things they learned about themselves to be able to push that one little step further,” Sandridge said.

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