12 academy graduates join the ranks of the Rapid City Fire Department

Rather than lacing up their shoes for the traditional final run, 12 of Rapid City’s newest firefighters ceremoniously burned their red recruit shirts on Friday, marking the end of three months of intense training aimed at preparing their minds and bodies for the rigors of the job.

“It was a lot on my mind to pick up something new in 12 weeks, but they did a great job and it was a lot of fun,” said graduate student Mason Harlan.

Harlan, 21, is the son of Rapid City Fire Department Superintendent Hunter Harlan. He was a junior at the University of South Dakota studying kinesiology when the interviews opened.

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Mason Harlan, 21, is the son of Rapid City Fire Department Superintendent Hunter Harlan. He followed in his father’s footsteps and graduated from the RCFD’s Fire Training Academy on Friday.

Darsha Dodge

“I just thought I might as well put my name in,” he said.

He will now graduate with a degree in health sciences and graduate from paramedic school in February. All Rapid City firefighters are trained as either paramedics or paramedics.

Harlan said his favorite part of the training was meeting the other recruits, many of whom aren’t from the Rapid City area, like 36-year-old Jeremy Atwell, who was a firefighter in California before moving to South Dakota. Atwell agrees that camaraderie is an important part of training.

“I’ve only known most of them for 12 weeks, but I feel like I’ve known them for years,” he said.

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Jeremy Atwell, 36, left his firefighting job in California to move to Rapid City and work with the Rapid City Fire Department. Atwell graduated Friday along with 11 of his classmates.

Darsha Dodge

The recruits are so close that they even showed up at the hospital when Atwell’s wife was having a baby.

The training, he said, has more book work than people realize.

“There’s a lot of temperatures and pressures and gallonage and how much tubing we need,” Atwell said. “Just all sorts of things. There’s a lot of stuff on the academic side.”

The academics are carefully supplemented with hands-on training aimed at building relationships and trust between firefighters, instructor Donavin Neugebauer said.

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Donavin Neugebauer, who has been with the RCFD for nearly six years, played a key role as an instructor at this year’s Fire Training Academy. Neugebauer said he’s helped before by teaching a class or two, but this year he’s committed to the full 12-week academy.

Darsha Dodge

“It’s one thing to read it in a book or go through a PowerPoint presentation or hear people talk about it,” he said. “But once they take that knowledge and go to a building and try to make it as real as possible, they can start making those muscle connections for those times when they might be getting a little excited or nervous. You can fall back on this practical training [and] that muscle memory.”

The burning of the shirts was an emotional end to a grueling 12 weeks, but as they stood shoulder to shoulder around the fire barrel, these recruits took a collective step forward and became more than just employees.

For some, it’s a lifetime dream come true.

“Watching the fire engines turn off the street lights and sirens as a kid, I mean, that’s the coolest thing in the world,” Harlan said. “So being on the back of one of those engines is going to be pretty sweet.”

In the afternoon, the official graduation ceremony takes place in a private setting, where graduates receive their badges in front of friends, family and other firefighters. The 12 graduates will join the rest of the RCFD by starting their regular shifts on Monday.

Contact Darsha Dodge at [email protected]

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