Sonoma County Fire District, the county’s newest fire department, builds traditions with first class of 17 recruits
Seventeen yellow firefighters’ helmets lined the stage, one awaiting each graduate.
“You are now entering a new family,” Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine told the recruits, the first group to graduate from a training program to staff the county’s newest fire agency.
The 17 new firefighters form the backbone of the fire district, an agency molded out of four separate fire districts serving a 175-square-mile area that surrounds Santa Rosa. They comprise one-third of the personnel in the new district, the second-largest fire agency in the county.
Veteran firefighters say it is the largest single hiring in anyone’s memory and likely unprecedented in the history of Sonoma County firefighting.
“It’s been a long time coming, an exciting time in our journey,” said Matt Gustafson, deputy chief of the Sonoma County Fire District.
Heine, formerly Novato’s fire chief, began recruiting in February, two months before the district’s creation in early April. A nationwide listing for new firefighters drew 144 applicants, a group that was narrowed down through testing, interviews and background checks to 17 men and one woman.
They became Recruit Firefighter Academy Class 19-1, enrolling in a six-week program that culminated with the June 29 graduation ceremony at Spring Hills Community Church. The lone woman dropped out to take a job with the Napa city fire department.
The 17 graduates range in age from 22 to 45. All had previous fire service experience as volunteers or seasonal firefighters, and all but one is from Sonoma County.
Some changed careers, switching from vocations as varied as school teacher and auto mechanic.
“They straight brought their A games,” Capt. Mike Stornetta, the academy coordinator, told the crowd of family and friends gathered at the graduation ceremony.
The physical training that started each day of the academy was so strenuous that one recruit lost nine pounds in the first week. There was a 25-question test each morning, with an 85% minimum passing score. Andrew Keefer stunned the instructors with a 99.8% overall grade, missing only one question.
Tim Rohrer of Auburn, the only recruit from outside Sonoma County, got married the first weekend of the academy and “got to spend his honeymoon with 16 dudes,” Lance Munselle, the recruit class speaker, said during the ceremony.
During their 18-month probationary period in district fire stations, where they will work 48-hour shifts with the next 96 hours off, the new men will be known as “probies” and assigned the most menial chores, Stornetta said. They must prove their mettle cleaning a toilet before they can drive a fire engine, he told the graduates.
But the men have already bonded as a team.
During a routine inspection of the recruits’ gear one morning, Stornetta discovered that class leader Alex Ciudad-Real did not have his rope, used to practice tying knots.
The oversight is typically punished with a remediation point. Stornetta couldn’t believe his top recruit had fallen short — until he noticed the next man was also without rope. And the next. And every other man in the class.
Stornetta’s dismay turned to delight.
All 16 men had fallen in line behind one of their own. It was “exactly what we are looking for in the fire service,” Stornetta told the audience, noting that the academy set the foundation for the fire district’s culture.