Even as heavy raindrops poured down, orange flames leapt up from a pair of wrecked vehicles.
A dozen new recruits from the North Las Vegas Fire Department immediately went to work pulling oversized hoses and quickly extinguished the practice conflagration, undeterred by a storm sweeping through the region last week.
The exercise taught the new firefighters how to approach the flames, watch for unanticipated combustibles and — most importantly — communicate with one another.
“Training is very fast-paced because you’ve got to take in a lot of information in a short amount of time, and it’s really competitive,” 36-year-old firefighting trainee Jesse Blanchard said, nearly out of breath.
“The physical demands are what I expected,” Blanchard said. “I’m not old, but it’s harder at my age compared to some of these guys who are 20 or 21, and it’s even taken a toll on them.”
The newest batch of North Las Vegas firefighters are expected to graduate in March after enduring 24 weeks of rigorous training, marking the second round of hiring for a department that was nearly depleted during the recession.
North Las Vegas had a staffing high of roughly 200 firefighters a decade ago, but a ballooning deficit and an economic near-collapse caused that number to plummet to 140, Fire Capt. Jeff Hurley said.
City officials started replenishing the Fire Department last year with 18 recruits hired through a $3.7 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program.
For the current fiscal year, the North Las Vegas City Council erased the final remnants of a long-term deficit that skyrocketed at one point to $152 million. It agreed to hire 57 full-time employees — including the newest round of firefighters.
“We’ll be able to provide a better service to the community,” Hurley said. “Public safety is always a priority, but we’re also helping to attract businesses, because increased coverage means lower insurance costs.”
By 2014, as officials cut their way to solvency, the city’s workforce had fallen by half from a high of roughly 2,200 in 2006. North Las Vegas is slowly restoring many of those lost positions. Its current workforce is about 1,300.
Hurley cautioned that it might take several more years for his Fire Department to be fully staffed at 200 firefighters.
“As much as we need firefighters, we also need more police officers. We need more public works employees. We need more people in parks and recreation,” Hurley said. “I would like it done tomorrow, but we’re all growing together, and we have to do it responsibly.”
‘Together as a team’
North Las Vegas does not have a firefighting training center, so the city’s new recruits practiced extinguishing flames at an instruction facility in neighboring Las Vegas.
The trainees, ranging in age from 21 to 37, come from diverse backgrounds, officials said. A handful transferred from other Fire Departments. Some recently graduated from college, and others, like Jason Coates, previously worked as paramedics for private ambulance companies.
“I’ve been on a lot of calls with North Las Vegas, so having that history helped build my training as a firefighter,” Coates, 30, said. “Nothing we’ve done so far is easy, but I like the fact that we’re working hard everyday together as a team.”
Learning how to extinguish fires is only part of the intense training North Las Vegas’ newest firefighters are receiving.
The recruits are also learning how to drive water-filled rigs, cut into wrecked vehicles and — as several of them were surprised to learn — a lot of math to determine the size of rooms engulfed in smoke and flames.
“They come into training with a lot of enthusiasm, but I want to see that same level of excitement on the first day they hit the floor, and I want to see it five years from now,” Fire Capt. Dennis McLane said.
“We’re trying to instill in them to enjoy what they’re doing,” McLane said. “We have the best job in the world, but they’re always going to keep learning.”