For Randy Scott, the rugged hills of northern West Virginia had turned barren, the promise of a better life tunneled out of the economically depressed mining town of Lumberport.
"I wanted out," said Scott, a coal miner for nine years. "I wanted security."
So Scott, 30, left his family last summer and drove 250 miles to spend the next four months training to become a Howard County firefighter.
Scott is one of 16 firefighter recruits, the largest class of rookies, enrolled in the county's fire academy. For 17 weeks, these 13 men and three women put their lives on hold to find out if they have what it takes to pull bleeding children from car wrecks, battle fires hot enough to bend steel, crawl through dark, damp underground tunnels, and administer life-saving medical assistance in split-second time.
The grueling 45-hour-a-week program can strain some families to the breaking point, said Fire Lt. George A. Morgan, fire academy supervisor. "I've seen a lot of divorces and separations" in his eight years as a training instructor.
The size and frequency of recruit classes depend on the number of new firefighters hired each year by the county, Morgan said.
The first class had 10 graduates, the second eight, and the third 10, he said.
The selection of the finalists is a long process, Morgan said. Applicants must take a written exam, as well as a physical agility test. A three-person panel, consisting of county personnel staff members and fire department officials, interviews each applicant, he said.
The top applicants are ranked and given complete physical exams, Morgan said.
Final exams for the recruits are scheduled for Jan. 27 with graduation exercises two days later.
Rookie firefighters are paid $19,573 and are on probation for a year, Morgan said.
"I can't wait to get out there," said Kevin Carter, a former credit application reviewer with a Baltimore paging company.
Carter, 23, said he had been thinking about becoming a firefighter for two years. His old job was "too boring," he said, and interfered with his plans to attend college.
In June, when the Howard County personnel office announced the openings for firefighters, Carter, along with 314 others, applied for the jobs.
Two of the 16 orignal recruits quit shortly after the training program started, Morgan said. They were replaced by two other applicants, he said.
During the last four months, the recruits, who include a former coal miner, mail carrier, Navy medic, furniture craftsman, hairdresser, British subject and construction worker, have been molded into a team willing to entrust their lives to one another.
The importance of teamwork was displayed last month at a live firefighting exercise at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The recruits arrived at the remote site several miles from an airport runway about 9 p.m., after a day of classroom instruction and a quick dinner.
In an open field illuminated by floodlights and the occasional flicker of screeching planes, the rookie firefighters donned their gear, complete with 30-pound oxygen tanks and air masks. A team of fire instructors, including BWI Fire Capt. Thomas McGinnis, hurriedly attached water hoses to a 5,000-gallon pumper truck and two small units.
Kevin Henry, a mail carrier at a Silver Spring post office, had served as a volunteer firefighter in Howard for 18 months.
Waiting in line to fill his oxygen tank, Henry, 29, said he felt confident of the abilities of his fellow recruits.
"These are people I trust my life with," Henry said. "That's what it comes down to some days. My life is in their hands."
The purpose of the Dec. 9 exercise was to teach the recruits how to fight a combustible gas fire, which can reach temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees, McGinnis said. Divided into teams of six, the rookie firefighters were tested on how well they could handle water hoses and avoid serious injuries.
Shortly before the exercise began, Morgan, who is fiercely protective of a training program he nurtured, gathered the recruits in a semicircle.
"This is not play pretend," Morgan shouted in the crisp night air. "It's the real thing. I don't have time to stop the fire."
"My mother likes this face; it means something to her," he said as the recruits smiled nervously. "And I don't want it to be burned tonight."
;McGinnis then lit the "Christmas tree," a branch of fuel lines attached to a charred metal shed sitting in a muddy pit. Choking smoke rose from the jreddish-brown structure. Then red flames flared into the air, crackling like Fourth of July fireworks. The intense heat propelled onlookers backward 100 feet.
The first team of recruits grabbed a flattened water hose and opened the nozzle. Crouching low to conserve oxygen, the recruits started swirling the powerful hose in a circular motion. They inched closer to the searing heat. Instructors Morgan and McGinnis barked out instructions: "Stay low, conserve water, back it up."
Several minutes later, the firefighters momentarily extinguished the flames. As the recruits backed away, the flames leaped back into the air, fed by fuel lines running from a gasoline truck stationed nearby. Team members traded places in the line and continued the exercise until each recruit had had a chance to maneuver the front of the nozzle.
About 20 minutes later, the exhausted first team retreated as a second group prepared to assault the fire.
Rookie James Reese, his face drenched in sweat, took a deep breath, "I want to do it again," he beamed. "It's not bad at all."
Reese, a Baltimore construction worker, glowed like a triumphant boxer after a bruising 15-round bout. Still pumped up, Reese, 25, said the exercise was exhilarating and satisfying. "Being on the nozzle was the best," he said. "That's where you get all the action."
Nearby, teammate Joanne McCauley removed her hat and slowly ran her fingers through her wet, matted hair. McCauley, a former beautician, said she was glad she decided to become a firefighter.
"I feel like I'm doing something with my life," said McCauley, 23.
For some recruits, professional firefighting is a lifelong ambition.
Ivan Alexander, 32, said he dreamed of being a firefighter as a youngster. But Alexander, a furniture craftsman in Baltimore County, said marriage and children sidetracked him for 13 years.
Now, with his goal within reach, Alexander said he was eager to finish the training program. "It's so much on you," he said. "We have to take it home and it's tough on family life."
Howard County set up its own fire academy in 1984. Previously, Howard firefighter recruits were trained in cooperative programs in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, Morgan said.
Even now, Howard uses training facilities in adjoining counties, such as the BWI site, for live firefighting exercises, Morgan said. The county plans to build a joint training academy for fire and police recruits. The fire academy now operates from a cramped, ground-floor office on the campus of Howard Community College, which also provides classroom space.
Morgan, who has three staff assistants at the academy, said Howard's training program is certified by state and national fire organizations, including the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. Along with recruit training, the Howard academy also offers year-round refresher courses for the department's 125 firefighters, Morgan said.
Comparing the 16 recruiters to new cars, Morgan said, "They're the best they're going to be when they leave here. They will learn a lot about themselves that they didn't know."
And although their skill levels may decline, Morgan said his marching orders to new firefighters are simple: "When everyone else has lost control, when people are sick and dying, you're the ingredient that holds it together."