Pride and discipline: A day in the life of a firefighter

April 6, 2019

For Aiken Department of Public Safety recruits Andrew Anderson and Derek Penvose, the day begins at 5:30 a.m. with stowing away personal belongings and carefully making their beds.

“We have a system in play where, if you don’t accomplish anything today, if you don’t learn anything, at least you come home to a well-made bed,” said Capt. Michael Regal of the South Carolina Fire Academy. “We’re just setting a standard of discipline … this is how we want things done here.”

Regal is in charge of training recruits like Anderson and Penvose, who will be at the S.C. Fire Academy for a total of eight weeks of training to become firefighters.

Anderson, who grew up in North Augusta, joined the armed forces when he turned 18, shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.

″... When I got out it felt like I was missing something in my life, so I joined the public safety office, because I have that community service,” Anderson said. “I want to do something bigger for my community, something bigger than myself. I’ve always had that kind of mindset and attitude. So when they had the call, I answered it.”

Penvose, of New Ellenton, previously volunteered with the New Ellenton Fire Department. For him, public service is about helping people and looking forward to the future. His goal is to leave the community a better place than he found it for the next generation.

″... Everybody needs help at some point,” Penvose said. “You always say it’s not going to be me, but that day comes and you need somebody to be there, and if nobody decides to step into that place, then who’s going to help you when you do need that call? And that’s what we’re here for. We’re basically here to help you on your worst day. It’s your worst day of your life 9 times out of 10 if you’re calling us.”

During their training, they stay in dorms at the S.C. Fire Academy’s 200-acre facility in Columbia. They will train alongside recruits for fire departments and public safety offices all across the state. The facility has many stations powered by gas lines that simulate fires in a variety of situations, even air plane fires. All the water used during practice is drained into a retention pond, recycled and reused for training.

″... Around 6 o’clock in the morning we’re raising our flag, rendering our honors to the nation and our great state of South Carolina,” said Anderson. “After the honors are rendered we go to the bay and do our morning maintenance cleanup and make sure everything is all nice and pretty and clean.”

After cleanup comes breakfast, followed by physical training, where the recruits do exercizes such as lifting heavy ladders and dragging water hoses with weights attached to end.

“Your body’s wanting to tell you to stop, but you have to mentally...keep going,” said Penvose. “Because if you stop, it’s over. That could be someone’s life, or your partner’s life, or your life. Your body might be saying it’s tired, but that job has got to get done.”

On Wednesday, the recruits also had their first training session with live fires. They practiced extinguishing simulated structure and vehicle fires.

But running suicide laps isn’t the most challenging part of their day. For Anderson and Penvose, it’s what comes after training that poses a big challenge: classwork.

“A lot of people don’t realize the fire service is like taking a college-level course,” Anderson said. “So when you take this course in this particular program, it’s eight weeks long. You only probably have about five weeks’ worth of classroom time. You’ve got to put in a book that’s more than about a thousand pages in just five week’s time.”

For ADPS recruits, the training won’t stop with the S.C. Fire Academy. Public Safety officers not only serve as the city’s firefighters; they are law enforcement officers, first responders and rescue teams.

″... We wear whatever hat is needed for the time being,” Anderson said. “So, most of the time we are enforcing the law, running in patrol vehicles. But if a fire call comes down we’ll go run fire calls. If a first responder call comes down, we’ll go do that. We’ll do what the city needs us to do.”

The training can be challenging; the job even more so. Public Safety officers face all the risks and dangers of firefighting and law enforcement. It’s dangerous – an idea that was reinforced that day when a memorial service was held Wednesday out to honor fallen firefighters.

“It’s just part of the job,” Penvose said. “You just have to be mentally prepared. It’s a mentally draining job, not only physically, but it can be mentally draining. You just have to wake up and think that hey, something can go wrong today, but I’m strong enough mentally to be ready for that ... In my volunteer career I’ve had some traumatic experiences ... we’ve all been through it, so knowing that there’s that support group, that family outside of your own family to be there for you, it makes the job a lot easier to prepare for it every day.”

Anderson also said the public safety service was like a second family. Many of the recruits are veterans like him.

They also have some advice for people considering entering public service.

“If you’ve ever had the idea of doing public service, give it a shot,” Penvose said. “It’s not for everybody, but you never know until you try.”