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Firefighters lead a strenous life
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Last week was National Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Week, honoring those who work in the EMS field. Approximately 70 percent of the calls handled by Ceres Fire Department are for medical emergencies, so this is a good time to provide insights into the world of a firefighter.

Firefighter Juan Montes was named 2009 Firefighter of the Year, nominated for by his peers. Montes joined the Ceres Fire Division in June of 2006. Juan was inspired to become a firefighter at a young age. When he was 12, his six-year old brother was struck and critically injured by a vehicle. Local firefighters came to his brother's aid, but sadly, he died despite their best efforts. Juan never forgot the efforts of the firefighters and was inspired to that career.

Prior to coming to Ceres, Juan served as a part-time firefighter for the city of Turlock and Turlock Rural Fire for 10 years. To prepare for the job, Juan had to complete a 12-week fire academy where he acquired the necessary academic knowledge, firefighting skills and went through the physical preparation needed to do the job. In addition, Juan had to successfully complete the 120-hour Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training program, which has a 50 percent failure rate. Then, in order to be hired by a fire department, he took a written exam, completed a rigorous physical agility testing (that about half of all applicants fail), followed by panel interviews and a one-on-one interview with the chief. After a successful chief's interview, Juan had to undergo an extensive background investigation (much like what a police officer must pass) because firefighters are placed in a position of trust - they go inside peoples' homes and businesses, deal with incapacitated patients and handle other matters that require the highest level of integrity and confidence. The background is followed by a thorough medical exam, psychological test and a polygraph exam.

Once Juan took his oath of office and began his first day on the job, he embarked on an 11-month period of on-the-job training. During this time, a firefighter is assigned to a fire captain who serves as a trainer, mentor and supervisor. A Class B driver's license would be required at that time, but Juan already had his; he learned to safely drive and operate the fire engines, familiarized himself with the layout of the community and any unique issues and safety challenges it might have, while continuing to maintain his physical conditioning.

And while a firefighter's job duties may seem obvious, they are actually expected to perform much more than most people realize. Their work ranges from hands-on life saving, to fighting fires, to maintaining the vehicles and equipment they use daily. They handle traffic collisions, perform rescues, handle hazardous materials spills and related events, maintain fire hydrants, assist with finding missing children and adults, provide fire prevention training in local schools, and the list goes on.

On-duty firefighters respond to calls day and night and often get no sleep at all. Off-duty, they are also subject to call-outs for major incidents. They are exposed to a variety of "silent killers," which includes frequent exposure to dangerous diseases, smoke and chemicals. The job of fighting fires is itself dangerous, but the frequent adrenaline surges, sleep deprivation, and going from sleeping at night into full-bore emergency mode also has significant adverse health effects. Firefighters' lives are punctuated by being away from their families for many hours at a time, and frequently many days in a row, making it difficult for them, their spouses and their children. Many firefighters have short retirement lives as a result of the cumulative stress and physical damage they accrue during their careers.

Firefighter Juan Montes' selection as the Ceres Firefighter of the Year came as no surprise to anyone who knows him. He has a high level of professionalism, positive attitude, strong and continuous desire to learn and is dependable. He is seen as the "fireman's' fireman." But while Juan is honored for having been selected, he will tell you that he was just "doing his job," which is what any firefighter will tell you - even when they have saved a life or performed any other heroic deed. He considers it an honor to serve.