All fired up
New recruits inspired by firsthand experiences

MILLARD K. IVES
THE STAR-BANNER




OCALA
It took an extraordinary event to spark Mark Ledford's interest in fighting fires.

On Halloween night, 2001, firefighters raced to his family's three-bedroom brick home, which was engulfed in flames.

The fire was so hot, water in his fish tank came to a boil. But despite the heat, firefighters were able to save his fish. They also saved his Himalayan cat.

The firefighters' courage was inspiring, Ledford said, and he never forgot it. After years of running his own tow truck company, the 40-year-old sold his business and started training for a new career.

"I didn't want to drive tow trucks anymore," Ledford said.

Today, Ledford will be one of 17 Marion County firefighter recruits who will raise their right hands and take the oath to save lives and protect property. The recruits include 15 men and two women who ended their six-week orientation today at the Marion County Fire-Rescue.

"I think everyone is waiting for that alarm to sound," said Mark Kadlecek, 20, a new firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician. "We went through a lot of hard training for this."

The 17 were chosen out of about 35 applicants who have completed rigorous training and classes. Criteria for the job ranged from performing a certain number of situps, posting ladders against tall buildings in about 40 pounds of gear, chopping wood and locating a mannequin in a smoke-filled room.

The recruits range from all ages and walks of life, including 18-year-old Stephen Cabrera, who just graduated from high school in May. Cabrera, as well as Kadlecek have been "Explorers" ? also known as junior firefighters ? for years, during which they mostly rode along with fire crews. Cabrera took special classes and programs as a high school student that made him eligible to join the Marion County Fire-Rescue straight out of the 12th grade. Cabrera said he also has been inspired to fight fires after seeing firefighters put out of a fire in his home that was started by a Christmas tree in December 2001.

"It's just something I all ways felt I wanted to do," Cabrera said.

Cabrera, an EMT, is one of three new recruits who still needs more training before becoming a full-fledged firefighter.

The swearing-in ceremony will take place 3 p.m. today at the Marion County Board of County Commissioners? Auditorium at 601 S.E. 25th Ave.

The new recruits add to an increasing number of blood-related firefighters in the department. Tiffany Sanders, 20, said she first thought about becoming a firefighter after seeing her stepfather, Lt. Ernest Eubanks, as well as her grandfather? a Tampa firefighter ? in uniform.


"I can remember trying on their uniforms as a little girl," Sanders said.

Others to be sworn in today are Brian Lewis, Christopher Chemerys, Stephanie Hensley, Jonathan Ingram, Vincent Supernor, Matthew Whitaker, Andrew Biros, Charles Balik, Bryan Dodd, Henry Herrera, Charles Messer, Derek Wagner and Mario DeAngelis.

Heather Danenhower, a spokeswoman for Marion County Fire-Rescue, said the hiring was part a 10-year staffing plan adopted in 2001 to accommodate explosive growth and equalize fire-rescue services countywide.

"We're one step closer to reaching those staffing goals," Danenhower said.

During today's ceremony, fire officials also are expected to promote nine employees, including Lt. Eubanks. Additionally, they will recognize Danenhower and others who have recently received specials awards or honors.

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Millard K. Ives reports on crime and other public safety issues. He can be reached at (352) 387-2488 or millard.ives@starbanner.com.