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Flare for the dramatic

DACULA - Flames spewed in all directions from a propane gas tank while firefighter recruits inched their way toward the gas fire until reaching for the nozzle and twisting it off.

The fire died immediately and the crowd of about 100 people erupted in applause. This was just one of the many demonstrations fire recruits performed for their instructors, friends and family Thursday evening at the Gwinnett County Fire Training Academy.

This year 16 recruits are learning what it takes to become a Gwinnett County firefighter. The classes are 16 weeks long and run Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Many of the fire recruits have been firefighters in other departments but are required to take the Gwinnett training program, which has been noted as one of the best in the state by other fire professionals.

"I've been in (Atlanta) for a year and I decided after researching to come here (to Gwinnett County) because other firefighters told me that this was a notable fire department," said Marne Richards, this class' only female fire recruit who moved from Ohio to take advantage of opportunities in the area.

For 15 years, Richards was a practicing emergency medical technician in Ohio but wanted to be a firefighter. She said she tried a couple times in Cleveland but she was turned down each time.

"I always failed the physical agility part," she said. "They had you take a 30-foot ladder, lift it and tap the loft of the ladder on a window, but I could never lift it." Richards said it was only until she came to Gwinnett County's Fire Department that she realized a firefighter would never even have to do something like that in a real fire situation.

"I think they did that to exclude the smaller men and women," she said. "But I didn't know that until I came here."

Richards and the other recruits have learned how to accomplish what is required of them during a fire but most importantly how to maintain their safety while doing it.

"Safety is one of the most important things they teach you - to look out of your fellow firefighters and citizens and it takes a lot of people doing that," said fire recruit John Wharton while taking a break from the evening's events.

Since childhood, Wharton dreamed of being a fireman and after a year and a half of attempts to fight fires with Gwinnett County, Wharton finally made the cut. He gave up a successful landscaping business to do it but said he couldn't be happier.

"They've done a great job and came in well prepared," said Gwinnett County firefighter Lt. Joe Schull. "Each year we have a higher standard and we get a good crop."

The fire recruits will complete their training in four weeks, graduate and then become full-fledged firefighters.

"And that's really where the learning begins," Schull said.