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Cadets prepare to battle wildfires

A week ago, Tom McKibbin stayed out until 1 a.m. battling a mobile home fire in Lithia.

Not the most relaxing way to spend an evening when you've got a class to teach the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

"You learn how to suck it up and move on," said McKibbin, a captain with the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department. "When you go out west on a fire, you don't work 9-to-5. There could be times when you'll work 24 or 36 hours straight."

That's part of the lesson McKibbin imparted last week to his students at the 2004 Florida Wildland Academy at McKibbin's home station in Seffner.

More than 50 paid and volunteer officials from 18 fire and forestry agencies came from as far away as Jacksonville and Miami for the 10-day training program organized by state and local emergency agencies, including Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the Florida Division of Forestry.

Throughout the academy, fire and rescue cadets trained to become certified responders for wildfires and other emergencies through equipment training, obstacle courses and hours of class work.

"Most of the emphasis is on safety," said McKibbin, an instructor with this year's academy. "Most of the firefighters that we're training are going to end up out on western fires."

Between Jan. 16 and 25, cadets practiced laying hose, digging trenches and hauling backpacks full of gear.

But most of their eight-hour days were spent in the classroom, watching slide shows on fire containment and conducting model emergency situations. On the academy's final day, cadets were handed a disaster scenario _ in this case, an ammonia truck crash near several schools _ and asked to formulate a course of action.

More than anything, the emphasis was on practicing protocol.

"The training can be used here locally and for other incident operations," said academy director Mike Perry, a retired state forestry official.

By the end of the academy, most cadets were ready to put their newfound knowledge to good use.

Jim Gregory, a forestry official from Arcadia, became qualified as an engine boss for a federal emergency, such as a large wildfire or hurricane.

Kevin Ogden, a captain with the Bloomingdale-Valrico Volunteer Fire Department, took higher-level courses that could put him in charge of work crews at western wildfires.

Perry and McKibbin said the academy's team exercises will prove their worth the first time cadets from different agencies come together to work a wildfire.

"When you do get out in the field and things get a little dicey," McKibbin said, "it's nice to have those personal relationships. Then you know what they're capable of."