Moulton firefighter achieves remarkable feat in training

Walling poses with his turnout gear, much of it visibly affected by the fire and smoke the young fireman battled in his intense Smoke Diver certification training. The weeklong course is only offered once year at the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa.

Moulton Fire Department celebrates one of its own for achieving higher training and special certification through the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa last month.

Moulton Firefighter Gunnar Walling is the first in his department, and one among few in the state of Alabama to have achieved the Smoke Diver Certification, Moulton Fire Chief Ryan Jolly said.

Walling attended the 40-hour training course, held at the college’s Tuscaloosa campus once a year, and received his certification in his first attempt. An astounding feat Jolly said the community, as well as the fire department, should be proud of.

The course, which was held Jan. 27 through 31, pushes trainees to their limits both physically and mentally, Jolly and Walling said in describing the training.   

“A majority that sign up, they train for months because the course is so physically demanding,” said Jolly. “I’m super proud of (Walling). Not only is he the only firefighter to achieve this certification in our department, but he’s the only one to have it countywide.”

Walling described the week-long course, which includes a fitness event each day followed by drill field evolutions and scenarios that include heat, smoke, and live-fire training, according to the Fire College.

“It was daylight to dark every day. There were times I’d wake up in my hotel room sore and hurting. I completely destroyed a set of gloves,” Walling recalled the intensive training. “The program is designed to push you even further than you think you can go.”

He said the training included a challenging confined space course, which required participants to crawl through a 24-inch hole to rescue an unconscious occupant.

“It was completely underground, and we had to go in with full gear,” Walling said. “There was just enough space for one person to crawl through. It trains you to maintain your composure in stressful situations like that, and it really messes with your mind. That was probably one of the most intense courses to me.”

In another drill, Walling said he and fellow trainees conducted victim searches on limited amounts of oxygen in their tanks. He said about 3,000 pounds of oxygen, which is what they were allowed at the start of the drill, should last a person about 30 minutes under normal working conditions.

After factoring in rapid breathing under stressful situations, not to mention the intense heat and smoke, Jolly said that 3,000 pounds of air actually translates to about 15 minutes for firefighters in a burning building.

A majority of trainees do not make it through the course, Jolly added. In fact, only about one percent of more than 5,000 firefighters in the state receive the title of smoke diver. 

Walling said at least 9 of about 34 participants this year had dropped out before the end of the week.

“On the very first day—they call it a consumption course, and it was basically like an obstacle course. It’s designed to weed out those not cut out for the course. Some began dropping out that day,” he said. “It’s sad to see the guys who fell out, and it made me think about how hard this training really was. It was chaotic—the alarms blaring, the heat. You have to know how to control your mind and remain composed. You just have to say, ‘Here’s the job at hand. Let’s get this done.’”

Jolly, who said Walling volunteered for the training and self-sponsored the $350 fee he needed to take the course—as well as the cost of his hotel room during his stay—is bringing back invaluable information to share with the Moulton department.

“As small a department as we are, we wear many hats. Gunnar is now able to pass along the information he learned. He has the skillset and now can help impart that to other volunteers and firefighters,” said Jolly. “The level of commitment he showed really demonstrates his great work ethic. The city and community should be thankful they have someone willing to go and take the extra steps to achieve this certification.”

Walling, who said the Moulton Fire Department is severely understaffed, also expressed gratitude to Jolly for allowing him to attend the five-day course and for allowing him time to prepare for the certification leading up to the training week as well.

“When someone calls 911, they’re having the worst day of their life. When I show up, I can’t be lacking whether it’s 2 a.m. or 5 p.m. I’ve got to show up bringing my all,” Walling said. “When we get on scene, we have to bring it 100 percent. Now I know I can give it everything I’ve got. I made it. I feel more comfortable in this service, and I feel I’m a better fireman.”

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