Danaryae Lewis, 18, graduated Friday for the second time in less than 18 months. But instead of wearing a cap and gown, this time she donned the dress blues of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
Lewis, a member of the department’s Fire Cadet Class 15, has been training since January to become a firefighter in the District. Once she turns 19 next month, she will be assigned to a local company. For Lewis, it’s a dream come true.
“This is my calling,” Lewis said last week at the Fire and EMS Training Academy in Southwest. “I like action, and I found that it’s fun and you’re not just cooped up like you would be in an office. I like to be hands-on.”
She is one of 23 cadets graduating this year. The program recruits students from D.C. public and charter schools to enter a one-year training course to become a firefighter and EMT. Lewis, who graduated from Cardozo High School in 2012, found the training both physically and mentally challenging.
“I thought it would be running obstacles and doing push-ups and stuff like that, but we ended up doing all kinds of crawling and running towers and running with racks on our shoulders, pulling chains, flipping tires,” Lewis said. “And not knowing what you’ll be up against. You just have to be ready for any and everything.”
The firefighters’ gear — helmet, gloves, coat and boots — weighs around 50 pounds, Lewis said. At a petite 5-foot-1, she was the smallest person in her class. The self-contained breathing apparatus adds 25 pounds. Running up stairs with all that weight is not easy, Lewis said.
Lewis and her fellow firefighter trainees were at the academy from about 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The cadets spent the first six months or so in a classroom, Lewis said, working on their EMT certification and completing other requirements. They reported for physical training first thing each day, then showered and went to the classroom.
In August, they started their firefighting classroom work, and they spent the last few weeks of training outside doing exercises. Lewis’s favorite activity? Running lines, she says. That’s when you put a hose on your shoulder and run it from the truck to the fire.
The training is paid for by the city, and cadets earn a stipend of about $22,000 while they are attending classes. After graduation, their income doubles to about $44,000 a year. Lewis is still living at home, but she plans to move into her own apartment in February and is saving up for a trip to Greece. Training to be a firefighter has helped her grow up a lot, she said.
“It made me view life in a different way,” Lewis said. “I know a lot of people around my age group that don’t necessarily have anything positive to do or have any positive light around their lives. They do what’s in the streets: nothing that’s going to get you anywhere besides dead or in jail. I didn’t want to be there. My mother raised me to be something in life, something positive in life. That’s what I wanted to do.”