Colorado Springs Fire Chief Ted Collas called Friday’s graduation of “The 33,” the largest recruit class in the city’s history, “a big relief.”
Low staffing, “alarming” overtime costs and high burnout had left the department in a tight spot in recent years, Collas said, but the newest round of 33 recruits means help has arrived. They will fill current vacancies, plus eight new positions the city approved this year.
“We’re still short,” Collas said of staffing, “but this brings us under a manageable level.”
More importantly, Collas said, the graduates “are the best trained and most prepared entry-level firefighters in the state.”
Video snippets from the class’ 17 weeks of training, which was set to superhero-worthy music, gave a taste of the mentally, physically and emotionally grueling journey they endured to earn their badges.
It wasn’t all fighting house fires. Recruits carried heavy logs above their heads, worked machinery to cut into wrecked vehicles, underwent medical training and dug fire lines in Colorado’s backcountry. “Masters of Emergency,” the video caption read.
They also had some laughs — one recruit performed the splits while in hazmat gear.
It all means one thing, class speaker and graduate James Osaer said: They’re ready to serve.
“We’d like you to know and understand that from this day on we are here for you,” Osaer told audience and community. “In your times of greatest need, we will always place your lives and safety above our own.”
Two graduates were awarded top honors.
Sandra Strebel, the sole female in the group, ranked top in the class for physical and academic success. David Lawing was recognized by his superiors for his leadership and grit as an “outstanding trainee.
A third recruit, Guillermo Zavala, was recognized for pulling double duty. He is deployed with the Marine Corps but will be sworn in upon his return.
As firefighters, their bond should be forged by fire, but this class is held together by the cold.
Their training started on a frigid, 19-degree morning Feb. 26, which came as quite a shock to the roughly half of the recruits who came from California, training Lt. Justin Koch said. It led them to adopt the slogan of one of their snowboarding comrades from South Dakota, “Stay Frosty.”
That camaraderie and teamwork is what got recruits through training, Collas said, and it’s also what’s going to keep the Fire Department strong in the years to come.
Current firefighters are ready for the relief their new brothers and sister will bring, as many were forced to work mandatory overtime in recent years. A few staff members even had to work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the day after last year, Collas said. “That’s not good for families,” he said.
It’s also not good for the city’s budget. Overtime costs have been increasing at an “alarming rate,” Collas said. He didn’t have overtime figures readily available, but Dave Noblitt, president of the Professional Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 5, told the City Council in May that firefighters worked more than 11,000 hours of mandatory overtime in 2017. That amounted to 460 shifts, he said.
“We’ve been doing too much of that,” Collas said. “That’s a lot of wear and tear on our firefighters.”