West Manatee, Florida Would-Be Firefighters Put To The Test

It's part of what Bill Kimbrell and Keith Brandon do every week, but now the two West Manatee volunteer firefighters have a shot at making it official.

Kimbrell, 26, and Brandon, 24, will be two of the more than 100 applicants planning to take a written and physical agility test today at the Cedar Hammock fire station along 53rd Avenue West. The tests will determine whether they've got what it takes to be hired by one of seven Manatee County fire agencies.

"It's not an easy test," said Brandon, who took the annual exams last year. Despite making it in the top 10 percentile, Brandon didn't make the final cut because of a hiring freeze.

The exams run a wide gamut of difficulty. First, there's the two-hour written test, which contains 75 firefighter-related questions and 50 paramedic-related questions on various topics including ladders, fire control, fire behavior and personal protection.

Then comes the grueling physical-agility test that requires the potential hiree to wear a 50-pound vest, which simulates the weight of firefighting equipment, and complete an obstacle course in less than 10 minutes. The physical test includes carrying a hose up three flights of stairs, advancing a firehose filled with water 75 feet, and dragging a 150 pound dummy 75 feet.

"You've got to drink a lot of water before you do it," Brandon said.

Fire officials hope to hire between 30 and 40 new firefighters who will be divided among Cedar Hammock, the DeSoto County Fire Department, Braden River Fire Department, Myakka City Fire Department, North River Fire Department, Parrish Fire Department, Southern Manatee Fire Rescue and West Manatee Fire Rescue.

Kimbrell, who completed his firefighter training at Sarasota County Technical Institute a few months ago, has been a volunteer firefighter with West Manatee since May. Kimbrell said he's been able to gain experience for the tests through his job, which requires him and Brandon to work 24-hour shifts every three days, like a regular firefighter.

"You learn most of it here," he said. "Being a volunteer, you actually fill in for the firefighters and get to do everything. It's good training."

The two have managed to squeeze in extra workouts and cardiovascular exercise, in addition to the time they're required to work out at the station. They've also managed to study for the written exams during their shifts.

"It's really hard to study for," Kimbrell said about the written exam. "It's a little tricky."

In order to be eligible to take the test, applicants need to have firefighter certification, be a state certified emergency medical technician or paramedic, and have a Florida license with an "E" endorsement, which allows them to operate emergency vehicles.

West Manatee spokesman Ernie Cave said the agency hopes to officially hire one or two new firefighters based on the examination results. The results come in later this month, and the new hirees can expect to begin their jobs on Oct. 1, with the start of the new fiscal year.

Kimbrell and Brandon are confident they can tackle the exams - as long as they take the physical exam first, the two said jokingly.

To Brandon, who completed his firefighter training in Hillsborough County and joined West Manatee last year, the tests are part of his job.

"I learned 99 percent of what I know from volunteering," he said.