KILGORE — Blake Green can’t remember a day he did not want to be a firefighter. Ever since he was a little boy, it was all he wanted to do, he said.
So when Green graduated high school in May 2003, he knew exactly where to go next — the Kilgore College Fire Academy.
“I guess it just kind of reinforced what I wanted to do,” said Green, who is now part of the Emergency Prevention Response team at Eastman Chemical Co. in Longview. “A lot of people say you go to school to find out what you want to do, and I think that did that for me.”
The fire academy will celebrate its 30th anniversary by graduating its 108th class at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Van Cliburn Auditorium at Kilgore College. The ceremony will graduate 18 candidates, adding to the more than 1,700 firefighters who have been trained at the academy.
Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman was part of the academy’s third class. Now, he helps teach courses.
Steelman said he always knew he wanted to be a firefighter. His father was a volunteer firefighter in Gilmer, and Steelman joined him when he turned 16.
“Back then, (the academy) was still new, and they weren’t sure year-to-year if it would continue,” he said. “We met in a different classroom all the time, because we didn’t have our own space. All equipment had to be borrowed from other departments in the area. Logistics were always a challenge.”
During his time at the academy, Green said he made many friendships he still cherishes. Some students in his class traveled from Canada, and he said he enjoys keeping up with where everyone ended up working.
Aside from Eastman, Green has spent about nine years at the volunteer fire department in Judson, which became an Emergency Services District in May.
“We now (are) a tax-based fire department where we have the tax money to help fund it. And starting next year, we’re going to start having paid staffing,” he said. “About 75% of fire departments in the country are volunteer. Very few are paid.”
At the academy, Green learned under Chief Mike Fennell, lead instructor. Green volunteered with Fennell at the Diana Volunteer Fire Department before enrolling in the academy.
“It’s allowed me to have a lot of respect for him,” Green said. “Having someone teach you what you need to know and then become your fire chief one day, it’s kind of cool.”
Fennell said he has been in the fire service for 40 years. He started teaching part time at the academy in 1989 when it opened. For 10 years, he has been in charge of on-site training.
In the final weeks of the course, students do a live fire training — their orientation fire — on land outside the city.
“We take them in there; we let them sit; we let them watch the fire, see how it behaves, kind of see what a fire is,” Fennel said recently on the first day of the live fire training. “None of the kids have experience. We have to go real slow with them. We have to teach them, coach them.”
The fire academy is a 12-week course that totals about 470 hours of training, Fennell said. He said a lot about the academy and the training have changed over the past 30 years.
“Technology’s changed a lot. Students have changed a lot, also,” he said. “The students themselves, they all have that dream of becoming a firefighter, and that’s one thing I try to help students do, is attain their dream and become a professional firefighter.”
Some of the technological changes have made the job safer, Fennell said. Air packs are lighter than ever, and face pieces now have thermal cameras.
The academy also is expanding its reach, he said. Fennell does trainings with local high schools and volunteer fire departments throughout East Texas.
But none of the academy’s success would be possible without the generosity of the community, Fennell said. The academy recently received a firetruck donated from Siddons-Martin Emergency Group, which repairs emergency vehicles in Longview.
Steelman said having a local academy allows students to learn how departments in the area operate.
“It absolutely is such a valuable asset here locally because it gives us an opportunity to keep local kids local and gives them an option for an amazing career locally,” he said.
Anyone with a high school diploma or GED can apply for the fire academy, Fennell said. He is eager to accept students and help them become firefighters.
“When I was a Longview fireman, I used to tell them I have the greatest job in the world,” Fennell said. “But now I really do have the greatest job in the world, because I get to help young men and women who are in the academy become what they want to become.”