COPPERAS COVE — Jacob Smith crawled on his hands and knees as he entered a smoke-filled room and struggled to see past the gray matter billowing inside.
Smith had just settled into his insulated yellow suit, gloves, steel-toed boots and helmet. Now, he was wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus and searching for a baby doll.
“I couldn’t imagine if (the room) was on fire and you were in a hurry,” said Smith, 21. He was among nine residents who completed a seven-week Citizens Fire Academy training course on Saturday. “Especially if you had to go in and find them in a certain amount of time.”
Smith, a lifelong resident of the Copperas Cove, grew up on the outskirts of the city limits. Now, he lives just blocks from the Copperas Cove Fire Department’s main station and wanted to learn more about how the city’s entities operate.
“It was kind of neat to see how they work and knowing that they do what they can to protect us,” Smith said.
The course culminated with students saving a “baby” from a smoking building, using hydraulic rescue tools, also known as Jaws of Life, to open a vehicle and extinguishing a fire in a car that had been set on purpose for the training. Gatesville Fire Department loaned the “smoke house,” and Spicer’s Wrecking Service provided the cars.
“Those are definitely three of the things that we have to be trained in amongst many other things,” Fire Marshal Mike Fleming said.
Carla Polidoro, a captain for the department, has been an instructor for the course since it started 10 years ago. She taught students about the history of the fire department, basic emergency medical services and the different types of equipment firefighters wear and use.
“We just gave them a little piece and taste of what we do,” Polidoro said. “It helps them understand our job and know we’re there for them.”
The course also helps taxpayers see where their money goes.
“If we need new fire trucks or fire stations that we need to do our jobs, (taxpayers) are the ones that vote on it,” he said. “If we don’t let them know what we do and (help them) appreciate what we do, then it’s kind of hard for them to see what our needs are.”
Fleming said many people think firefighters sit around and wait for a blaze and in the early 2000s, many departments closed themselves off from the public.
“We did our jobs, but we didn’t get out in the community. The only time (people) really ever saw us was when they had probably one of the worst days of their life,” Fleming said. “We wanted to change that. We are public servants. We’re here to help them. We’re here to be there on their worst day, but we also want to be there on their good days.”
Smith’s movements were smoother and his air intake was clearer after taking off the bulky suit.
“You feel like a turtle. Like if you fall over, you’re stuck,” Smith said. “I knew (firefighters) did a lot of work, but now actually being able to do some of it, you realize it’s super hard.”