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Six firefighters to join department

Six new firefighters join the Merced City Fire Department on Friday after five weeks of intensive training. All the trainees have previous firefighting experience and are eager to embrace whatever their new careers hold in Merced.

Keith Albrecht, Nate Frankhauser, Jamison Kraft, Justin Kimbrell, Jesse Miguel and Ryan Ortiz become part of a 75-member department. Ten new firefighters joined the department in March and a dozen in August 2006, Chief Ken Mitten said.

Ortiz, 25, said being a firefighter is truly the best job there is.

"It's an opportunity to help people in so many different ways," Ortiz said. I wanted a career where I could make a difference. A lot of other careers are monotonous."

Thanks to passage of the Measure C sales tax increase in November 2005 and a grant, the Merced City Fire Department now has 19 firefighters working each day, compared with 14 before. That means three firefighters will be on the trucks rather than two, and four personnel will man the ladder trucks rather than two, Mitten said.

Division Chief Steve Raney, the department's training officer, praised the new trainees, who had 19 tests, almost on a daily basis, on firefighting techniques contained in a 696-page manual. All six new firefighters scored better than 90 percent on the testing and have learned how to do things the way the Merced department does, he added.

What better way to learn about firefighting than burning a house down? Last Saturday the department staged a five-hour controlled burn at a condemned home at 73 S. R St. Eventually the house was reduced to ashes, but not before the trainees got to practice things like using breathing equipment, ventilating the roof and using a thermal imaging camera to pinpoint hot spots, Raney explained.

Albrecht, 21, was born and raised in Merced. He knew he wanted to do something to help the community and has a good feeling of coming back as a firefighter, helping people at their lowest points, in time of need. He has worked for the Fresno-Kings unit of CalFire, the new name for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"Any risks in firefighting are outweighed by the amount of good we do," he said.

Raney said a controlled burn is the best chance for a new firefighter to test his skills in a somewhat-controlled situation before facing the real thing.

"These young people are very excited about their new job and are eager to train and learn their newly chosen profession," Raney said.

For Miguel, 22, joining the fire service was a natural. His father is a fire captain in Mountain View with 29 years service and a firefighter's schedule was his daily routine growing up. The younger Miguel worked for the Escalon Fire District for 10 months before coming here.

"Being a firefighter can be dangerous but it's also very gratifying and well worth it," Miguel said. "There have been no surprises; I'm pretty much prepared for it."

Frankhauser, 23, said it has been his dream to work for the Merced Fire Department. He lauds the level of commitment he has seen from engineers, firefighters, captains and other staff members in teaching the new recruits the proper way of doing things.

"This is the best job possible," Frankhauser said. "I love the camaraderie and excitement. It's a very unique brotherhood that many jobs do not have."

Frankhauser worked for the Monterey-San Benito CalFire unit as a seasonal firefighter and as a reserve firefighter for the Morro Bay City Fire Department.

Ortiz said being a firefighter is not about the money. It's what you do with your life. He was with the Orange County Fire Authority for four years as a reserve and spent a year as an industrial firefighter for the Northrup-Grumman aircraft manufacturing company.

Firefighters have learned not to go into anything blindly and do everything possible to minimize risks, Ortiz said.

Kimbrell, 27, worked with CalFire in Placer County as a seasonal firefighter for five years. He has a twin brother, Austin, who has been in Placer County fire service for 10 years and was caught up in the stories he told. Once he took fire science classes, he was hooked.

Personally, Kimbrell said, he doesn't think about risks. He said firefighters have the high level of training they take part in to fall back on.

Kraft, 26, started out as a volunteer firefighter in Groveland and worked three seasons for the U.S. Forest Service, then returned full-time to the Groveland Fire Department where he served three years.

"We are always learning something new," Kraft said. "There's lots of good training and we've got to be aware of what's dangerous and avoid it the best you can. Every day I'm smiling and glad to go to work."

Among the subjects trainees learned were auto extrication, breathing apparatus, confined space rescue, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and emergency medical technician duties, fire department organization, forcible entry techniques, hose, rope and ladder practices, live fire training, salvage operations, search and rescue, station safety, ventilation procedures, water and foam supply systems.

After Friday's graduation, the new firefighters will be assigned to one of the city's five fire stations.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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