A fire inside to fight fires

Tampa and Hillsborough fire rescue trainees get to "kiss the dragon" as a test of their skills.

Published May 11, 2007

TAMPA - Earline Randolph sat with one hand over her mouth and the other clutching a cross on her necklace as the fire instructor said what her son, Jaisen, was about to do.

Flames would shoot nearly 50 feet into the air from a propane gas line, and it would be up to the 18 recruits to tame it.

Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Troy Basham, the chief instructor, called it "letting them kiss the dragon."

Randolph decided she was going to call on the man upstairs.

"It's all about praying, " she said.

More than 50 family members and friends watched Thursday night at the city's fire academy as a special class of Tampa Fire Rescue and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue trainees faced their toughest task yet.

It was one of a series of drills the recruits go through, confronting different types of fires.

A group of 20 started the six-month training course in December as part of a joint effort by the city and county to increase the diversity of their fire departments. Two trainees dropped out.

The program provides each candidate with books and tuition. Tampa Fire Rescue trainees get a weekly stipend of $300. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue trainees were hired as employees and receive a salary.

Capt. Bill Wade, Tampa Fire Rescue's spokesman, said the training should wrap up in early June. First, the recruits have to take a state exam and complete a few more minimum standard courses.

"They've almost learned everything they need to learn, " Wade said.

Once they do, they'll begin working as full-time firefighters.

Lydell Ross, 23, played running back for Ohio State University's football team and recently graduated with a communications degree. He returned home to Tampa and applied for one of the slots with Tampa Fire Rescue.

"I always wanted to be competitive. I always wanted to be part of a team, " Ross said. "That's why I decided to be a firefighter."

Rick and Carmen Harrison grinned ear to ear as their 22-year-old son Brandon faced the heat with his classmates.

"He's always been the type to help people, " his mother said. "These firemen, police and ambulance drivers are people we don't think about or take to the time to appreciate. People should remember these are somebody's children and pray for them."

Jennifer Stanley, 22, a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue candidate and one of three women in the class, said she'd wanted to be a firefighter for as long as she could remember. She was working as a golf instructor when her uncle, a firefighter captain, told her about the program.

"It's a golden opportunity, " Stanley said, as she waved to family and bounced around with anticipation for the night's drills. "I've been waiting a good three months for this. I'm ready."

Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.