Firefighters in training

Christina Calloway: Staff photo  Firefighters assist in extricating new recruit Andrew Bernal who, in the scenario, had become unconscious and had to be carried through the window when leaving the building. The trainings are to help the novices adapt to real-life situations.

Christina Calloway: Staff photo
Firefighters assist in extricating new recruit Andrew Bernal who, in the scenario, had become unconscious and had to be carried through the window when leaving the building. The trainings are to help the novices adapt to real-life situations.

By Christina Calloway
Senior writer
ccalloway@pntonline.com

It seems like a dream deferred, but at 38, Nole Pitts said being a firefighter is his calling.

Pitts expected to join a department in Arizona after graduating from the fire academy several years ago. But after a state hiring freeze, he moved to Illinois where he was part of a volunteer fire department.

Because the age limit in Illinois to become a full-time firefighter is 35, Pitts almost gave up on becoming a firefighter until an opportunity opened up in Portales.

“This is the first thing in life I feel like I’ve stuck with,” Pitts said. “I know it’s cheesy, but I feel like it’s my calling.”

Pitts, who moved here about a week ago, is part of the fresh batch of recruits at the Portales Fire Department. The new crew participated in a series of drills Monday, practicing scenarios such as crawling through confined spaces or getting a fellow firefighter out of a building.

PFD Chief Gary Nuckols said the department underwent major staffing changes after several of the department’s veterans left to work in other industries.

The trainings are to help the novices adapt to real-life situations, according to 2nd Lt. Gary Rains of Elida.

The setup called for the firefighters to enter a room through a window while carrying their hose through it and other small spaces.
“It gets your heart going,” Rains said of the drills.

A box was used to simulate crawling through small spaces. The gear that firefighters wear, along with their air packs, can add an extra 50 pounds to their bodies.

“The box is real tight. You can get panicked in there,” Rains said. “This is good to see how guys will react. It gets your mind thinking, you get that rush.”

For Pitts, it’s the climate he feels he has to adapt to. Being a volunteer firefighter in Illinois called for cold and wet weather.

Pitts said the drills help him get better acclimated to the area’s hot, dry and windy weather. The drills also help Pitts refresh his skills, but he wants to receive more than training with the department.

“I just want to be part of a family. That’s what got me interested,” said Pitts.

Andrew Bernal, 23, is another new firefighter who had no experience prior to being hired.

The father of two was a medical assistant at Roosevelt General Hospital before he decided firefighting was a more efficient way of giving back to his community.

“The way it’s being taught, it’s definitely eye-opening,” said Bernal, who got to play the unconscious firefighter in the drill.

“My favorite part is the teamwork and keeping an eye out for each other,” he said.

Bernal is going on his second week at the department but he said the transition was easy because he knew a lot of the first responders through his job at RGH.

Being a family man also puts the job into perspective for Bernal.

“You can’t hold back. When you run into a situation with a child…because if my son was in that situation, I would want them to do everything they could to save him.”