Cadet Robert Johnson stood on the rooftop of a six-story building as the cool breeze brushed against his skin. Strapped to a harness, Johnson peered over the edge and faced his fears. With the motivation of 18 cadets, he slowly rappelled down the Courtyard by Marriott during a rescue situation class for Killeen’s Fire Training Academy.
“I just don’t like heights, and this was a big day for me,” Johnson said. “My classmates were cheering me on and the instructors were competent and confident.”
Justin Todd, lead instructor, said the most important thing cadets can learn from Saturday’s class is self-confidence. Todd is a fire rescue officer/paramedic at the Killeen Fire Department’s Station 5 and a technical rescue team leader.
The cadets started practicing rappelling on Thursday and although it’s one of the few skills they’ll be doing on the job, Todd said it’s a confidence and trust builder.
“When it comes to a fear of heights, it turns from a rope rescue aspect to psychological,” he said. “In the fire service, you have to trust your partner ... with your life.”
It’s a great responsibility to be a person’s line of defense or the only thing keeping them alive, Todd said. Despite the stress of the job, he hopes cadets can take a deep breath and learn to remain calm in rescue situations.
“Panic is your worse enemy in this job,” Todd said. “When one person panics, then somebody else is going to panic and ... you get somebody that’s not panicking but he’s mad that (everyone) else is.”
During training, the class also will encounter a rescue situation where they enter a burning building.
“You have to learn how to stay calm in that situation,” he said. “I’ve been in situations where it could have been really bad with me and my crew, but with (us) remaining calm, we pretty much got out (without a) scratch.”
Patrick Pitts returned from a deployment to Afghanistan in April. After seven years of service, he separated from the military in October, but wanted to continue to serve the country on a local level.
A former volunteer firefighter, he’s following his dream of being in the Emergency Medical Service.
“In the military, I’m kind of helping the country but in a way I’m not helping anybody directly,” Pitts said. “With this, I can help people directly.”
The training exercise was excellent, and although he also has a fear of heights, his instructors’ motivation helped him overcome it.
“Todd is a pretty awesome guy. He teaches the same way I learn, a lot of hands-on,” Pitts said. “I could sit there and read the material all day long, but without a good instructor ... I’m not going to know (what to do).”
The hands-on experience was invaluable for Johnson, who wants a career he can take pride in.
“I wanted to something that I could fall in love with,” he said. “I’m falling in love with the training, so I think it’s going to be good.”