Main Street Fairview

Cheryl Lewis: New firefighters are eager to bear a heavy load

The newest recruit class for Lebanon Fire Department (left to right) Clint Allen, Adam Fleming, Braden Taylor, Tyler Wayman, Jordan Fox, Zack Buhrow, Nathan Fields, Brandon Zeitlin

I can still feel the extreme weight of that coat and the clunky boots as I gingerly stepped, rung by rung, up the firefighter’s ladder to the tip top.

It was unnerving, because the helmet perched on my head kept slipping, but my grip was devoted to clenching the rails. A backup carabiner clip tethered me to the steps just in case.


My media stint as a firefighter in Lebanon lasted only a matter of hours, but it gave me a healthy respect and teeny little window into a job that plenty have dreamed of having and yet few achieve.

It’s not all riding around in the shiny red engine, smiling and waving at kids out the window! I had no idea the gear would be so HEAVY. I wasn’t even loaded up with the worst of it.

The schedule is tough and the danger is real.

A few years ago, when I was writing for a publication in Georgia, I had another day as a firefighter and, on that occasion, I was actually sent into a burning building set up for the training exercise. In full gear, I army-crawled in, watching in wary fascination as the flames crept up the walls.

We took frequent breaks, getting back outside to cool down and hydrate, peeling off the outer layers soaked with sweat, then putting it all back on again (soggy and uncomfortable) before making our way back in.

It was fascinating and I was oh so glad I didn’t have to do it every day.

This week, the latest batch of new firefighter hires are attending the fall rookie classes hosted by the state and will find out for themselves just what it’s like to drink from a firehose … even if it’s just a packed schedule of learning.

“I’m excited about what’s ahead of them,” said Lebanon Fire Chief Jason Baird. “I think they’re excited, too … nervously excited. There are 13 weeks, five days a week and some 12-hour days before they even get to shift work. You spend 13 weeks preparing for the job and learning all these things and getting efficient. After you graduate from the academy, then you start with 10 other guys in the building and you have to figure out how you mesh with the other guys and learn your particular supervisor.

“Then there’s EMT school and advanced training. It’s a very tough first year.”

Beyond that, there are many ways to diversify.

“There are just so many areas these guys can go into,” said Baird. “Some will say, ‘Hey, I love extrication and cutting cars.’ Others want to immerse themselves in swimming and water rescue. We provide the avenue that allows these guys to become what they want to become. We pave their path to become technicians in whatever it is they want to be in. Our constituency is better for it.”

The camaraderie that grows during the tough days together is fierce and enduring.

“The biggest thing for these kids to learn is that there’s nothing about this career that’s just a job; it’s a complete lifestyle,” said Baird. “If someone gets arrested for DUI, it won’t say their name. It’ll say, ‘Lebanon Fire Department.’ Their badge has to be earned and isn’t given to them to wear until they graduate from the academy. The same is true with the T-shirt. There’s not a different shirt depending on how long you’ve been there. You get it when you’ve earned it and with it you carry the reputation of the entire department.”

Building just the right mix of individuals is key and Baird says the ever-changing market adds to the challenge.

“Our hiring process has drastically changed,” he said. “It used to be that I could post one position and have 120 applicants. The first day of agility testing, 25 wouldn’t show up and then another 25. The last fiscal year, I posted for 11 and this year for eight. We’ve had around 50 applicants both times. This time, I only interviewed 11 and hired eight.”

It’s not just the physical demand and tough schedule that causes attrition and weaker interest.

“This hasn’t happened at Lebanon so much, because we’ve been market setters for a firefighter’s pay,” said Baird. “Mt. Juliet was losing so many firefighters because of pay. I can create the most fantastic culture and think we have done that, but the pay has to be there. The last thing I want to do is not pay them the wage they deserve.

“We make decent money, but it’s hard to even afford a home,” he said. “We had a big pay adjustment a few years back and it’s just hard to stay in front of it. At the end of the day, it’s what they can provide for their family. They’re getting married and having children and need to make a wage that’s comparable to everybody in our area for sure.”

These firefighters devote themselves to continuous learning and are willing to pay the ultimate price for their community.

It’s a lot to carry.

Cheryl Lewis is a writer for Main Street Media of Tennessee. She can be reached at

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