The Sunrise Beach Fire Protection District is beginning a new era of standards within department operations as it brings new firefighters on board after a levy increase last year created additional positions.

The Sunrise Beach Fire Protection District is beginning a new era of standards within department operations as it brings new firefighters on board after a levy increase last year created additional positions.

The new hires filling these jobs — Kenneth Wieberg, Matthew Jones and Jack Haggard — are now in the midst of the department's inaugural recruit academy. From here on out, any firefighters hired by the district will have to go through the recruit academy with another already planned for sometime in September to fill two open positions.

"The program is tailored to who we are and how we operate," said Sunrise Beach Fire Chief Dennis Reilly. "We have one staffed engine for a 63-square-mile district, and mutual aid is far away. They have to do a lot of stuff in the first five minutes by themselves, and that's tricky. They have to do a lot more with a lot less."

The four-week course features physical and technical exercises and assessments in addition to orienting the new personnel to district apparatus and equipment — all intended to teach the firefighters to focus on a task and execute it well whatever the conditions.

In a technical drill Wednesday morning, the recruits performed a hot bottle swap in which recruits practiced buddy breathing and switching air cylinders in the dark.

While all three recruits are already certified firefighters and have been with area fire departments in different capacities, the recruits must pass a fitness assessment with four elements, a practical skills check and academic testing.

During the course of the academy, the recruits are graded with a points system, and the one with the most points at the end will be the honor graduate on May 2.

At 7 a.m. Wednesday, the recruits started the day with physical training which among other things included jumping jacks, push-ups and a mile run.

"It's been tough — mentally and physically — especially the first week," said recruit Haggard. "It's still challenging physically, but mentally, we're starting to settle in. There's been a lot to absorb."

Jones said the academy has made him strive to be better and stronger.

"You learn to keep pushing yourself — if you're on your second wind or even your third or fourth," Wieberg said.

The program, according to Reilly, is designed to instill discipline even in routine things like equipment checks on trucks so that they can be more efficient in the field.

"It builds in them the idea that it never stops. When you come to work, you have to do stuff that's not a lot of fun. You have to get over that and come in and get the job done," he said.

While the command staff has been working them hard, the recruits take heart from the active role the chief and others have played in the academy.

Reilly and Assistant Chief Jeremy Criner are often both on hand for many parts of the morning drills, doing the exercises along with the recruits.

It is also common for the on-duty crew to come to the administration building to help with the technical exercises that are challenging in of themselves.

The recruits underwent a ladder exercise Wednesday morning as well with assistance from the on-duty firefighters. In full gear and air packs, the recruits climbed a succession of ladders into windows at the department's training tower. Challenging physically, the exercise also gives them practical practice, and through these types of drills shows any weaknesses in the recruits.

"Fear of heights is a common fear in humans. There's no way to test for that. You don't know until you do it," Reilly said. "But if we know it's an issue, we can work on it. The only way to overcome it is to keep climbing the ladder. The fear may not go away, but you can get comfortable with the fear."

Perhaps just as importantly as the physical training and skill-building, the academy introduces recruits to the department's ethos. At the beginning of the academy, they are given cards stating these values including the mission to "exemplify the standard in excellence." The recruits are expected to carry these cards with them at all times.

It may seem like a minor requirement, but it is part of the department's overall attempt to train firefighters to pay attention to small details.

"When you read firefighter fatality reports, it's always the small things that they didn't notice. Details are absolutely crucial," Reilly said.

More than a short orientation, the academy is the first program of its type in the area, according to Reilly, and one that even many larger departments around the country don't do. The chief brought the concept to Sunrise Beach from the Cherry Hill, N.J. Fire Department where he ran the inaugural academy there several years ago.

For the SBFPD, it appears to be the start of implementing tougher standards across the department as district officials consider new agility testing of various types to be required every six months for all operational personnel from the chief on down.