LAWRENCEVILLE -- When 47-year-old Robert Bryan emerged from the Gwinnett County Fire Academy's burn house, his turnout gear was singed but serviceable. He was enervated but energized, sweaty but smiling.
That's because in less than two weeks, Bryan will realize his dream of becoming a Gwinnett County fireman.
After 17 weeks of intense training, the class of 30 men and one woman will graduate on Dec. 11 and begin their firefighting careers.
And this class, leaders say, is as diverse and talented as any that's come through.
"Every class has people who excel," said Lt. Scott Davis, who has headed the academy for two years. "Usually, half or two-thirds of the class will do very well. But out of the 31 here, I'd take every one of them out on a truck today."
Academically, Davis said, this group is well above average; the cream of the crop. Two recruits, Corey Bowles and David Klein, notched perfect scores on their state certification test and were near perfect on their hazardous materials exam.
Physically, everyone's pulling their weight, too.
Twenty-seven-year-old Jessica Pazinets, once a Walton County firefighter, said the physical aspect of the academy is the toughest part for her. Though small in stature, the fact that she's about to graduate is a testament to her toughness.
Before he even filled out his application, Bryan had heard how much the academy demands of one's body. Entering his late 40s, overweight and tied up with his construction company, he knew his chance was passing him by.
That's when he made a decision to do whatever it took to get where he wanted to be. He forced himself to take time away from the business, spending the next year whipping himself back into shape.
Today he's 65 pounds lighter and runs through academy drills like a man half his age.
But Bryan, like his classmates, won't accept full credit. He quickly praises his instructors for pushing him to his limits, not only physically, but academically.
It's noteworthy that more than a quarter of the original class has been dismissed, mostly for academic reasons.
"This has been long and hard," Bryan said, "and instructors have pushed us so hard. I've been away from school for 30 years and I actually forgot how to study."
"The instructors' level of training is incredible," Klein said. "Their passion for what they do is contagious."
Those instructors, Davis said, are hand-picked, "the best of the best in the field."
"They pour their hearts out and they want to be here," Davis said. "They see the impact they're making on training the future department. The recruits do their part, now, but I attribute (the instructors' enthusiasm) to a lot of their success."
Aside from test taking and physical drills, there's a broader mental aspect of training. The gut checks given to those who aspire to make a living doing something inherently in contrast with our instincts -- running into burning buildings.
Those checks can be especially tough for recruits who aren't far removed from final exams and senior proms, because the reality of the job is that any given day could present a life or death situation.
"Not only do they have to grow up physically as a man ... these 18- and 20-year-olds ... and deal with work, but they have to deal with working in emergency situations," Davis said.
The class also has its fair share of work force veterans, like Bowles, a 26-year-old who said he believes firefighting is more than a profession, it's a calling.
His mother, Mary Bowles, is a paramedic with Station No. 15 in Lawrenceville. She's always spoken highly of Gwinnett firefighters, Corey said, which helped convince him to give it a shot.
"My biggest inspiration to help people is my mom," he said, "and if she loves 'em, they've got to be good people."
Klein, 32, once studied biology at the University of Georgia and has worked as a paramedic. He's been stationed in three Gwinnett firehouses and his wife, Teresa, works as an assistant district attorney here.
But those ties aren't what ultimately led him to the fire academy.
"My sister-in-law had a house fire and I was blown away by the level of customer service the Gwinnett Fire Department gave," Klein said. "They checked in every couple of hours, asking if they were OK and handing out phone numbers ... I wanted to be a part of that."
Klein, along with his 30 classmates, will soon be a very integral part of that. Each of them will be christened firefighters and emergency medical technicians, earning certifications above those required by state law.
And while most will tell you completing the academy is the most challenging thing they've ever done, none is likely to tell you he or she did it alone.
From study groups to formed relationships to the six fledglings whose fathers Davis has served with in the field, the Basic Firefighter Recruit Class 2009-02 has all the makings of the "big family" Klein said it is.
No man or woman an island.
"We all pull together and that makes us a good class," Pazinets said.
It makes them one big ol' happy, firefighting family.