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Stockton Fire Department Runs Academy for New Firefighters for First Time in 8 Years

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STOCKTON --

A duplex fire in North Stockton on Thursday was the latest of a half-dozen structure fires in about a week.

A second engine was called to the blaze on reports that there was a man trapped inside.

It's shaping up to be another long, hot day for the Stockton Fire Department -- a department that's 20 people shy of fully staffed.

"We have to back fill with overtime. At first, it's not too bad, but when you're never getting days off, never getting to go home, never getting to spend time with your family ... this is a very, very busy department," said Fire Chief Bill Weisgerber.

But now, things are changing. For the first time in eight years, Stockton is running an academy for new firefighters. Today, 11 trainees are learning how to escape, in case a fire turns on them.

Plastic wrap on their masks simulates the way smoke and soot and dust will cut down their visibility in a fire fight.

Then it's into a long, cave-like box on hands and knees. There is a tight tangle of rope and wire they can't see waiting for them inside.

It is a simulation of a crawl space where there's no way around it: they will get stuck.

"As soon as they know that they are entangled, as soon as they are stuck, we ask them to radio their location, their air, who they are, their resource needs," explained Battalion Chief Ken Johnson.

And if confined spaces aren't your thing, the opposite exercise happening on the other side of the training facility is no walk in a park either.

The scenario there: the trainee is on a second floor, cut off from their escape by a fire, and has to get out a window.

One after the other, the trainees dangle outside, a dozen feet or more above the pavement, until one of their fellow trainees can get them ladder.

"In firefighting, often time, your life expectancy drops dramatically if you can't get out of the building yourself," Johnson said.

For the trainees, it's a new life with the Stockton Firefighters. And hopefully this signals a new life for the city itself -- which has been trying to get itself out of the deepest of holes by pulling itself up by the bootstraps.

"The city's been having hard times with the bankruptcy ... and this is almost a rebirth, if you will," Weisgerber said.