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Three recruits complete the journey to become firefighters

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Mickey Sanderson pulls off her regulator after practicing a transitional fire attack during the Laramie County Fire District 2 volunteer fire academy, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, at Fire Station 1. The regulator is part of the self-contained breathing apparatus, and is the first thing to come off once the trainees exit the structure. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Standing shoulder to shoulder with each other, Laramie County Fire District 2 graduating recruits have just become official firefighters. Their faces are filled with smiles, instead of the usual sweat from the past few months, as they raise their right hands and take the firefighter’s pledge.

After nine weeks of physical, emotional and mental training, the volunteer firefighters are now able to go on call with the rest of the LCFD2 firefighters. Twice a week, the recruits would be at the fire station for four hours learning how to be a firefighter.

Outside of the fire station, they would also study coursework to understand more about fire behavior and other topics necessary for firefighting.

Each recruit had a different reason for joining the fire service.

For Albert Byrd, it was to find camaraderie and serve his community after being medically discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps.

For Mickey Sanderson, it was to repay a promise she made to a firefighter when she was 15 years old.

For Yevgeniy Sokolov, it was to give back to the community he’s living in for the next few years.

“When you join the fire service, you’re joining a family,” LCFD2 Chief Jason Caughey said on the first night of fire academy. “A brotherhood and a sisterhood.”

Standing in front of the room of families that night, Caughey talked to the new recruits about how becoming a firefighter not only affects them, but their families, as well. This is why he wanted them to invite their families to the station for dinner.

Because for the next nine weeks, the recruits probably won’t see their families as much as usual.

Over the course of the academy, the recruits will be pushed to their limits and accomplish things they never thought they could.

The Beginning: Motivation

For Sanderson, this experience is also about facing what happened to her nearly 17 years ago.

“I was actually hit by a drunk driver when I was 14, and the paramedics and the firefighters pulled me from the median,” she said. “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. I was dead on scene.”

After the crash, she had numerous surgeries and medical complications, which included putting metal rods in her leg due to a broken femur. About a year later, with the rods still in her leg, she decided to join the Fire Explorers with her friend at her local fire department in Illinois.

The rods were only supposed to be in her leg for three months. When she joined the Fire Explorers at 15, they had been in her leg for about 18 months.

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Mickey Sanderson, a personal trainer at Fitness 307, hauls a weighted sandbag while wearing a 35-pound training vest as she completes a workout regimen she designed to help her with her firefighting tasks Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, at the fitness center in east Cheyenne. Sanderson designed and updated her training course after each new task she was introduced to during fire academy so that she would be able to complete any task required. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

“I had been walking around with (the rods) stabbing me. As a teenage girl, your hips shift, grow and they change,” she said. “With those rods in my leg, they would get caught on the muscles in my leg, and I could not move. It’s the most excruciating pain I’ve ever been in, and I’ve had four children.”

It was at Fire Explorers that a firefighter noticed this pain and her limp. Sanderson opened up to him about the crash and the rods in her leg. Her parents were struggling with the more than $300,000 in medical bills from the crash and caught in the crossfire of insurance companies.

After hearing her story, the firefighter, Jim Hertzler, told her, “Don’t you worry. We’re going to get those rods out this year.”

At first, she remembers thinking “whatever.” But soon after, Hertzler told Sanderson to give her parents a phone call. She was getting the rods out.

From that point on, Sanderson knew she wanted to become a firefighter. But life happened. She got married and had four kids. Her husband is in the military, so she moved to various places while raising her four young children.

“The firefighter that did all that for me is now 73 years old,” she said before training started. “I promised him that I would do this. He’s 73; time’s not going to wait any longer.”

“I know I’m going to go all nine weeks as hard as I can, for sure. My kids are looking up to me ... eventually, I would like to be a career firefighter, and I would like to be involved in Fire Explorers, because that changed my life. If it wasn’t for the fire department and how they invested in their youth, I don’t know where I would be right now. I look forward to the next nine weeks and putting the best I can out there.”

Sokolov never made a promise to become a firefighter, but he did want to give back to the community where he was living. Sokolov is a technical sergeant, manpower analyst, in the U.S. Air Force and is currently based at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

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Yevgeniy Sokolov wipes down an engine after practicing a transitional fire attack during the first cold storm of the fall season, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, at LCFD2 Fire Station 1. After each night of academy, the trainees had to clean the equipment and make sure it was ready for use. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

When Sokolov was growing up in Chicago, he debated becoming a police officer before deciding to join the military. In the military, he had friends that were firefighters and always leaned toward becoming one.

He was at the base for a year before deciding to become a volunteer firefighter. He approached his commanding officers with the idea, and after their approval, he applied and was accepted.

“I always like the services that give back to the community,” he said.

He said joining LCFD2 is a good way to learn and become immersed in the community because people from all walks of life become volunteer firefighters.

He also said going through the gear fitting on the first night of academy was similar to how he got his chemical gear fitted when he was in South Korea. He hopes the skills he learns at the academy will also help him later in his career.

Although Byrd isn’t in the military anymore, he wants to maintain the camaraderie he experienced as a Marine.

On the first day of fire academy, he said he felt excited for the challenge of becoming a firefighter. Growing up in Cheyenne, Byrd said he originally wanted to be a cowboy, but then he turned 6 and decided he wanted to become a Marine.

His family instilled a sense of service in him from a young age and to give back to others when he’s able to.

Firefighters don’t just fight fires anymore; they also respond to medical emergencies and other problems. Byrd said he’s looking forward to serving in this jack-of-all-trades role.

“I think that what really pushed me to volunteer firefighting was that I wanted a way to serve the community again,” he said. “In the military, there’s this huge sense of camaraderie, and everything I see about firefighters, I see that they have a pretty similar sense of community, a sense of friendship.”

Byrd is originally from Cheyenne, but spent the past five years deployed to different areas of the country and even the world. Coming back home and serving as a firefighter in Cheyenne definitely makes it more personal, he said.

“Part of the reason I got out of the military, I was medically retired because I developed Type 1 diabetes, and as a volunteer firefighter, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from serving as much as I can, despite that medical issue,” he said. “Other agencies might not be as forgiving of that.”

The Academy: Training

Climbing up a ladder into the second floor of the metal structure behind LCFD2 Station 1, the recruits crawl into the dark building. Once inside, they stick together, following the edge of the walls to find a potential victim.

Although this building isn’t on fire, the recruits are practicing how to search a home during a structure fire and make sure there isn’t anyone trapped inside. In a real fire, the building would be full of smoke and have limited visibility.

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Lt. Josh Kourajian pulls the door to a shipping container shut with all the firefighter trainees and a live fire inside for the fire dynamics lesson Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, at the Laramie County Fire District 2 practice grounds. Trainees’ first experience with live fire involved using the nozzle and an air flow window to see how the fire behaves in a structure. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

This is why it’s important for the recruits to stay along the walls of the structure to maintain their bearings as they search the building. They also have to stay near each other to make sure they don’t lose a firefighter in the fire.

This is a second-story search.

As the recruits sweep the building, they come upon a 160-pound dummy they have to rescue. In a real fire, finding the victim might mean the difference between life and death for the person trapped inside a burning building.

As the recruits find a way to carefully finagle the dummy out of the building, they also have to figure out how to safely carry it down the ladder they use to enter the building.

Now, since this is supposed to be a real person, they can’t just throw the dummy over their backs and call it a day. They must cradle the dummy as they slowly climb down the ladder to safety.

The recruits repeat this exercise numerous times to make sure they get it right.

“So far, everyone here is a bit, you know ... that they love a little bit of adrenaline. In this (second-story search) you’ve got heights, you’ve got ladders, you’ve got fire we’re imagining that we’re fighting,” Byrd said. “It’s physically exhausting. It’s tiring, but I guess in the moment, I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was just like, all right, we did this. This is next. Get ready for this.”

After the drill, Byrd and Sokolov are sitting next to each other in the fire station’s garage. Their faces are red from exertion, and they are chugging water.

Sokolov says this type of training is similar to what people do in the military. Throughout the exercise, he says, he was racking up adrenaline and swimming in endorphins.

In the academy, this exercise has a lot of hype around it due to its difficult nature, and Sokolov says it definitely lives up to that. The training the recruits have been doing up until this point has been preparing them for this moment, he says.

Sokolov says this exercise hits home because firefighters go on a lot of medical calls, and rescuing the dummy was a medical situation.

“Even though it’s a rag doll dummy that looks vaguely human, I found myself like, all right, what’s the head, get under the arms, get the head off the ground so it’s not going anywhere,” Byrd said. “Then as we’re getting close to the door, I’m like, ‘OK, is our tank banging into their ribs or something, are they going to hit their head on the doorway?’ It felt a lot more real than I expected it to.”

Throughout the drill, it’s important to keep communication with the other firefighters so they know where they are and thinking about what to do next, Sokolov says. All the practice they’ve done up to this point with managing the hose and breathing through their air masks has also helped.

While Sanderson was doing the second-story search right along with the rest of the recruits, she was also doing something else on the side.

A few weeks into the academy, Sanderson decided to mail a letter to Hertzler, detailing how she was keeping her promise and going through the academy. She said she was feeling a little anxious about sending the letter because Hertzler was 1,000 miles away, and the two haven’t spoken in more than 15 years.

Hertzler has impacted Sanderson so much, and she wants to show her kids the importance of following through with promises, and that life is what you make it. Sanderson said she could have let the accident destroy her life, but she pushed through it, and now she’s a personal trainer.

“To me, the Explorer program and what it did for me, and what these other firefighters did for me, was huge, and I just wanted Jim to know,” she said. “Kids are the next generation ... You need to make sure that you’re investing into the next in line.”

Especially in a district that relies heavily on volunteers, she said.

Sanderson added that as a 5-foot, 4-inch woman, she’s had to do things a little differently than some of the other male recruits. She can’t just muscle her way into a situation or use her height like they can. She’s had to focus more on different techniques, and even developed a specific workout regime to help her with firefighting.

Her experience was also different at the vehicle extraction training days.

Different experiences

For vehicle extractions, recruits and their firefighter coaches have gathered at a Laramie County junk yard.

Bright lights from the fire trucks shine down on the cars they are about to decimate. These cars have been donated by the scrap yard for the firefighters to practice. They have several dings and dents that simulate the circumstances in which a firefighter would have to extract someone after a car crash.

There are different types of makes, models and years of the cars, including Mercedes with dented hoods and vans with banged-in doors.

The recruits start by smashing in all of the windows. Their faces light up with joy, like a kid in a candy store. After they smash in all of the windows, they use various tools, such as the renowned “jaws of life,” to cut open doors and take the roof off the vehicles.

While the recruits smash and snap apart the cars, their coaches stand by, giving pointers such as “Don’t rest the jaws-of-life on your legs because it can snap your femur,” and “Use the wood blocks to stabilize the car so the victim doesn’t get crushed.”

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Albert Byrd pulls off his mask as hail pelts him after practicing a transitional fire attack during the first cold storm of the fall season Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, at LCFD2 Fire Station 1. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

“It’s one of the more fun days, for sure,” Byrd said later. “The first day, it was kind of funny, you know, I’m one of the younger recruits here. There’s guys here in their 30s and 40s, and I saw these, you know, grown adults who have mortgages and bills, getting excited like ‘Guys, we’re gonna ride the fire truck and wreck cars! It’s gonna be awesome.’”

Sokolov said while it’s a lot of fun, they’re also learning good skills. He said when he first started the extractions, he thought he could manhandle all the tools around, but by the second day, he could barely move his arms.

Byrd said while it was fun, it was also extremely sobering because practicing this drill is for extracting a patient from a vehicle when there’s a car crash. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to safely pick apart a vehicle to rescue someone from a car crash and save their life.

For Sanderson, the exercise has a different kind of impact.

She said she faced the impact her accident had and talks about it a lot because it’s part of who she is. But she wasn’t prepared for the memories that were brought back during the vehicle extraction.

“So Paul (an instructor) had to set off some airbags in our car, and our car was a Cadillac, just like my mom’s Cadillac,” she said. “So airbags have this very distinct smell. It’s just a chemical smell, and I didn’t realize it. But that smell is something that you’ll never forget. ... I don’t remember the car accident, but the moment I smelled those airbags, I was like, it was like, I could hear my ears were ringing, like I could feel it.”

She said after the airbags were set off, she spent the rest of the night either quiet or crying. While everyone was talking about how much fun they were having, she said she told them she was going to have nightmares.

After the training, she said she didn’t sleep because she was anxious, and just kept reliving the sound of the airbag and the feeling of glass hitting her face during the crash. She also remembered the sound of her mother’s voice screaming “Mickey, wake up, Mickey, wake up! Oh God, Mickey, please wake up. It’s not your time.”

These are all things she never remembered before the training.

She told her fellow recruits that she realized she still has issues to work through from her accident. But she didn’t let that stop her training. She got herself together and threw herself back in with the rest of the recruits to smash some more windows.

Graduation: Looking forward

“It’s been nine weeks, kind of been building up to it,” Sokolov said at graduation. “I’m kind of surprised a lot of people have showed up here to wish me well. It’s really rewarding, really unusual for somebody in my situation.”

He said the nine-week academy flew by, and when he first had the idea of becoming a firefighter, he wasn’t even sure he was going to do it.

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Yevgeniy Sokolov watches a lesson on how to refill the oxygen tanks Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, at Laramie County Fire District 2 headquarters. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

“When I first talked about it, my wife, Ashley, was the one that supported me and was like ‘You should do it,’ so it pushed me over the edge to start doing it,” he said.

He said anyone who might be considering applying to the fire academy should do their research and make sure the fire district is the right fit for them.

“I was very fortunate to have my unit, my commander and my base give me the opportunity to do this, because it’s pretty rare. It’s not every day that active-duty military can go and do something like this,” he said. “And, for me, it’s been definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I hope I get to continue pursuing.”

For Byrd, graduating was an exciting experience because he kind of decided to do the academy at the last minute. He was only in Cheyenne for a few weeks before he applied to the academy.

He said signing up for his first shift, he realized how much more he still has to learn, such as how to drive the fire vehicles and handle different equipment.

“‘I’d say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to get a T-shirt, for sure,” he said, jokingly. “Though, it’s been a great time, fantastic people, I’ve grown so much confidence in the emergency services around town. Even seeing the inner workings between, you know, the ambulance services, the state troopers, police and county sheriff’s deputies.”

Byrd said he’s not worried about having to respond to a call where he potentially knows someone because he trusts the training. When he’s in the action, he said muscle memory will take over; afterward, when the other firefighters aren’t around, he said it might be a bit more difficult to deal with emotionally.

Byrd said he might consider becoming a resident firefighter, but it’s difficult trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life since coming back home.

A few weeks after Sanderson sent the letter, she got a phone call from an unfamiliar phone number. Thinking it was just another telemarketer calling, she didn’t answer the call and went back to taking care of her kids.

But the caller left a voicemail.

When Sanderson listened to the message, she started crying. It was Hertzler. He had gotten her letter and wanted to know how she was doing. He also invited her to come visit him in Illinois.

“When I listened to it and then he said, ‘Mickey, Mickey,’ and that just like, hit me real heavy, real heavy, and I had like this lump in my throat,” she said. “I continued to listen to it, and then when he said that I made good on the promise, I was proud at that moment.”

“I’m just proud,” she said. “And it feels like I did right by him.”

At graduation, Sanderson’s kids ran around Laramie County Fire District 2 Station 2 and mingled with the other firefighters’ families.

“I’ve never actually graduated anything before,” she said. “I didn’t graduate high school. I didn’t graduate college. I have certifications, and I have schooling, but I’ve never actually graduated anything. And to graduate the one thing I wanted to, as my first time graduating, it’s really surreal.”

Isabella Alves is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at ialves@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter @IsabellaAlves96.

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