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‘First Alarm’ film series hinges on personal stories of N.H. recruits during 10-week program

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Recruits team up to find their way through a training prop in simulated low-visibility during last summer's training. The academy is producing a web-based video series examining several recruits' personal experiences in the grueling annual on-site training program as the next class nears the beginning of this year's training schedule. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Recruit Brody Call strains as he and other recruits practice rescuing a downed firefighter at the academy's summer recruit program last summer. The academy is producing a web-based video series examining the personal trails of several recruits in the grueling annual on-site training program. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • Gretchen Joki and other recruits put water on flames during training at last summer’s recruit school at the state fire academy.

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Brandon Wright, a recruit in the 2018 summer recruit school at the state's fire academy, learns wildland firefighting skills in woods near the academy's Concord campus. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • Brittani Rutherford and James Marron, two recruits featured in the state’s fire academy video series, work with a hose during last summer’s recruit school. Photos courtesy of Don Himsel / New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Nicholas Bridge and Gretchen Joki fist bump during a break in last summer's training. Joki and her classmates are featured in a web-based video series examining the personal experiences of recruits in the grueling annual on-site training program. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • Brittani Rutherford was part of the academy’s summer recruit school during the summer of 2018.

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Jenny Bronson listens as an instructor talks to recruits about how to rescue a downed firefighter during last summer's recruit school program in Concord. Bronson, who was hired as a firefighter in Burlington, Vermont, was part of a class featured in a video series examining the personal experiences of several recruits in the rigorous annual training program. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • James Marron checks a bottle of air during training at the academy’s Concord campus.

  • Brittani Rutherford, a recruit in the 2018 summer recruit school at the state’s fire academy, learns how to safely handle a ground ladder at the academy’s Concord campus last summer. Rutherford was part of a group of recruits featured in a web-based video series examining the personal experiences of recruits during last year’s program. Pphotos courtesy of Don Himsel / New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Manchester firefighter and New Hampshire Fire Academy instructor Thomas Defina watches carefully as a recruit learns how to rescue themself from a basement window during training last summer. The state's fire academy has released a video series examining the personal experiences of a group of recruits as the faced challenges in the rigorous annual on-site 10-week training program. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • Photo courtesy of the New Hampshire Fire Academy and EMS Ashton Rome, a 2018 Fire Academy recruit, listens to an instructor review recruits' performance as they learned how to escape from a basement window in one of the academy's training buildings. Don Himsel—Courtesy

  • Gretchen Joki smiles as she talks with other recruits at the state’s fire academy during training in the summer of 2018.

Monitor staff
Published: 6/13/2019 5:13:59 PM

Brittani Rutherford played with toy fire trucks, not Barbie dolls as a little girl.

Whenever a real fire engine drove by her childhood home in Derry, she got so excited that she’d run outside to get a closer look.

And years later, when she was old enough to own a cellphone, she set her ringtone to the sound of a fire siren.

“I always wanted to be a firefighter growing up,” Rutherford said during a recent interview. “Seeing fire trucks got me amped up.”

They still do.

What she never imagined is that her journey to achieve her dream would be captured in hundreds of hours of film footage taken by New Hampshire Fire Academy and Emergency Medical Services as part of a first-ever documentary series.

The goals of “First Alarm: Making the Grade” are to boost recruitment, educate the community about the realities of firefighting and to dispel myths, such as that firefighting is only for brawny men, its creators said. First Alarm also documents the intensive hands-on skills work, studying and team building required of roughly two dozen recruits accepted into the Concord academy’s 10-week training program in summer 2018.

The series, now airing on the fire academy’s YouTube channel, takes viewers most closely through the unique experiences of four recruits, including Rutherford, from orientation to graduation day. The first episode aired April 9, with seven more released since then. Two more episodes are in production.

The creators of the project said those one-on-one interviews with recruits, both at the academy and in their homes, will distinguish this project from others published nationally. They didn’t rely on heavy metal music and flashy fire segments to draw people in; instead, they chose to get personal.

“Most of the other academies have Firefighter 101, how you become a firefighter video. While ours touches upon that, it’s really more centered and focused around the actual students, what their accomplishments are and what their struggles are,” said Captain Christopher Rousseau, who is an education technology supervisor at the New Hampshire academy. “You understand through them what it means to become a firefighter and EMS professional opposed to step-by-step like Betty Crocker, this is how you do it. When you as a viewer are able to make that connection, then you as a person can put yourself in their shoes.”

Stories of recruits

When Rutherford applied to the fire academy, she didn’t think she’d be accepted, in part, because she is a woman who is small boned and who struggles to gain upper-body strength. What she showed the academy in her 10 weeks as a recruit is that she is also fiercely competitive and determined to realize her childhood dream.

“My story shows people to never give up,” Rutherford said. “I never gave up at any point.”

By making the film series, fire educators hoped to dispel gender and social stereotypes and show that the profession is open to anyone who has “the want and the will to succeed.”

The project finally came to fruition this spring, but the seeds for it were planted a few years ago. At the time, the academy didn’t have the resources and the expertise on site to pull it off. When the idea resurfaced in 2017, Londonderry fire Lt. Don Waldron naturally took the lead because of his background in cinematography. The academy’s education technology experts, including Rousseau and photojournalist Don Himsel, who works at the academy part-time, also jumped on board.

“We wanted to show the real side of what we do, and that it’s not always perfect,” Waldron said. “We never had a compass bearing set that said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ The personal stories were our guide. We knew some recruits would fail and some would succeed but that everyone would work hard to achieve their goals.”

James “Doc” Marron, one of the four featured recruits, said he enjoyed helping the film crew capture day-to-day life at the academy – including in its dorms and dining hall – and never felt like the cameras made him lose focus on the tasks at hand.

Marron previously served in the U.S. Navy, enlisting after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and retiring five years later due to injuries he suffered in Iraq.

“My dad was a firefighter for 15 years in Londonderry. I thought why not get back into it and be part of something that’s bigger than myself or any one person,” said Marron, a former resident of Franklin.

Marron said he hopes the film series gives those considering paramilitary service or service to their local community a real inside look at what’s involved and a greater understanding of the opportunities available for people of all backgrounds.

Using technology to teach

In addition to showing the film series in its entirety, the academy also plans to use clips and still images from the film as part of its educational curriculum. Over a five-year period ending in 2016, the fire academy estimates that it saved about $1 million in teaching expenses by supplementing classroom and hands-on learning with online programs for students.

“We met a lot of resistance at first,” Rousseau said of the online learning model. “People said, ‘You’re not going to get students to learn any part of firefighting or EMS online because they’re going to want to do everything hands on. We disagreed with that.”

The summer recruit school is one way that aspiring firefighters can obtain their certification. The academy also offers night and weekend programs, which allow people who want to volunteer or work per diem for a department to do so while still holding a full-time job, officials said.

New Hampshire has two firefighter certification levels, one and two. Those who meet the first threshold complete a 212-hour program and learn the fundamentals of firefighting so they can operate at a fire scene under direction. The second certification requires an additional 116 hours of learning that is essential for those who want to be career firefighters and work full-time.

Because the programs are nationally accredited, the firefighter certifications obtained in New Hampshire are recognized in almost every other state. That means someone who obtained his or her certification here can move out of state and still be eligible for full-time employment.

“Eager for that next step”

Gretchen Joki is still seeking that full-time job after completing the fire academy in 2018 and hopes to be able to stay in New Hampshire.

Joki, who previously attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, said music had always been her focus as a child but that once in college she felt a bit unfulfilled.

“I loved it but something didn’t feel right,” she said.

Initially, she considered becoming a police officer like her brother but didn’t make it past the interview stage of the application process. At her brother’s encouragement, she considered firefighting and followed in her father’s footsteps. She got her first taste of the job in Brookline before attending the academy.

“To a certain extent I still haven’t experienced a lot because I’m on call right now,” she said. “But I’m doing a job that I care about and
I’m eager for that next step.”

Neither Joki nor Rutherford said they ever thought the academy would pick them as featured recruits for the First Alarm film series. Being in the spotlight definitely helped shape their academy experience, but in a positive way, they said.

“You want to look professional and not screw up or sound dumb,” Rutherford said, “But truly, in the end, I loved every second of it.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at

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