LAWRENCEVILLE - Twenty-one men and a woman entered the auditorium of the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Friday afternoon as recruits having just completed an arduous fire training program. About an hour later the group emerged as firefighters and future heroes of Gwinnett County.
Tested in both academics and physical strength for roughly 13 weeks, the group was pinned and given diplomas during the Friday graduation, officially making them part of the Gwinnett County Fire Department family.
Family and friends whistled and yelled as names were called, each with the firefighter title placed in front.
"Way to go Bacharoni and Cheese" was yelled by a friend in the crowd as Chris Bach's name was called and he walked proudly to accept his badge.
Lt. Russell Knick said each firefighter received their firehouse assignments Thursday and will be ready to head to work in a week or two.
All are ready to get to work, but the steps it took the group to get where they are today were not easy they say.
Samuel Ingram said being a firefighter is a calling - and it's not for everyone.
"It's tough. Not just the average person can do it," Ingram said.
The firefighter said his dad was the inspiration for wanting to join the department.
"I watched my dad do it my entire life," Ingram explained. The young firefighter's father Larry Ingram was a Gwinnett County firefighter for 25 years before he retired.
"(My dad) was passionate about it and it's not the most money making job in the world, but it's rewarding," Samuel Ingram said.
County commissioners and uniformed men and women from the Fire Department congratulated the group as well with handshakes and kind words.
"The skills you've learned are invaluable," county Chairman Charles Bannister told the graduating class. "You'll save lives and you'll be called a hero."
Many who watched the group excel in their classes and field work were sad to see the recruits go.
"I was talking to them in the hallway today and I asked them if they'd like to stay longer ... We could arrange for them to stay another week or two," joked Fire Training Academy Lt. Greg Schaffer. "They really upset me - none of them took me up on it."
Fire Department Chief Steve Rolader said more than 1,900 firefighter applications were processed through the department last year and is proud to see another class graduate.
"We have the best Fire Department in the United States," Rolader said. "And these (firefighters) are some of the best of the best."