Diverse Pool of Recruits Drawn to Grand Strand, South Carolina

'I think everyone wants to come to the beach because it's a good place to be.'

On paper they may be rookies, but the resumes of many of the 27 recruits who recently graduated from the Myrtle Beach Fire Academy are chock-full of work and life experiences as varied as the firefighters' hometowns.

A retired New York Police Department homicide sergeant, a software programmer, a former semiprofessional hockey player, a chef, and a former forestry firefighter and military police officer who served in Kosovo and Iraq are among those who earned their badges last month.

That reservoir of knowledge also exists in most other Grand Strand fire departments, where you're just as likely to hear a Northern or Midwestern accent as you are a Southern drawl.

Todd Cartner of Horry County Fire Rescue - the largest department in the county with about 272 paid full-time staff and 230 volunteers spread out across 38 stations - said the beach offers an attractive destination for work or play.

"A lot of it has to do with somebody coming from a certain location, liking it here, and then calling home and telling their friends," he said.

Even some of the smaller departments, such as Surfside Beach Public Safety, are filled with out-of-staters who have prior experience or are on their second careers.

"I think everyone wants to come to the beach because it's a good place to be," said Chief Robert "Butch" Parker. Many in his 44-member force have roots in other states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland.

"We've got a very diverse background, and a lot of the guys are retired from other places," Parker said.

Despite those backgrounds, being a professional firefighter always requires more training. Like North Myrtle Beach, Surfside cross-trains its full-time employees to respond to fire and police matters, and in some cases, they are certified emergency medical technicians.

Capt. Ken Frye of North Myrtle Beach Fire and Rescue said his 36-member department supplements training at the state training academy in Columbia with its own instruction.

In Horry County, only the county and Myrtle Beach departments do extensive in-house training, and both allow recruits from other departments into their training sessions if space is available.

"We benefit if firefighters in our area are trained to a higher level because they can help us on a major call," said Lt. Dan Walker, Myrtle Beach Fire Department spokesman. He said the arrangement also helps to build relationships among fire departments that have mutual-aid agreements.

The 27 recruits were the largest class ever to go through the academy in Myrtle Beach and boosted the Myrtle Beach Fire Department ranks to 126, Walker said.

They will help staff a new $1.6 million, 9,800-square-foot station slated to open later this month plus deal with retirements and growth in Myrtle Beach.

For four months starting in February, the recruits pored over topics including hazardous materials, rope rescue and vehicle extrication. They earned certifications the department requires.

As if the academy coursework weren't tough enough, one recruit's wife gave birth to a baby boy, two of the men were involved in minor wrecks, another two got married and one popped the question during training, Walker said.

Even with his 20 years as a New York police officer and volunteer firefighter, Richard La Pera, 40, found the training intense. "I learned more in three months than I did in 15 to 20 years as a volunteer," said La Pera, a married father of two who is at Myrtle Beach Station 1. "They gave you training, but it wasn't as detailed as what we were taught."

Maryland native Mark Kennedy, 27, who also is at Station 1, flew helicopters with the S.C. Army National Guard and was a member of the Marine National Guard prior to joining the department.

He said he became a firefighter because it is a noble and rewarding career.

John Cilladi, 24, came to the beach from Erie, Pa., where he had been bartending at his family's restaurant.

Before that, he played with several amateur hockey teams with dreams of becoming a professional player until nagging injuries caused him to hang up his skates.

The married father of two said he looks forward to going to work at Station 3 "because it's something different every day and I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile."

He also notes parallels between hockey and fighting fires. "When you're on a team," he said, "you're family. And when you're in a fire, it's a stressful situation and you're there for each other."

Distributed by the Associated Press