Twenty new firemen joined the Charleston Fire Department in a graduation ceremony Friday morning, and all 20 came to the department from out of state.

The men, who will join firehouses or begin an eight week emergency medical technician training process, hail from states including Minnesota, Vermont and California. The Charleston Fire Department seeks recruits from all corners of the country, Chief Karen Brack said. The department typically gets 300 applicants for an average 40 to 50 spots in a recruit class.

The application process is extensive, including medical and psychological evaluations and rigorous physical fitness exams in addition to the typical job interview. Once accepted, recruits undergo a 16-week training period. They undergo physical fitness training, take classes in firefighting skills and do hands-on simulations and training.

In order to find the best candidates for the tough job, Brack said the department "casts a very broad net to get a solid recruit class."

A big draw for many far-away candidates is Charleston itself, Brack said.

"Why would you want to be anywhere else, especially in the fire service?" she said. "You protect this major historical resource, and you protect the community."

Many recruits come to the Charleston Fire Department after careers in the military. Joshawa Bell,who came to Charleston from Pensacola, Fla., was a firefighter in the Army before joining the department this year. While training to join the department was a challenge, he said his military experience eased the transition.

Matthew Mendez served in the Marines for four years and "missed the camaraderie and having a job worth doing." He went on a ride-along with his cousin, a firefighter in Anaheim, Calif., and was sold on the job. He moved from Huntington Beach, Calif. to Charleston and finished his time as a recruit by winning the Chief Tom Carr Leadership Award, which is reserved for exceptional recruits and not given at every graduation.

The graduation ceremony came just days after the seventh anniversary of the Sofa Super Store fire, which killed nine Charleston firefighters. After the blaze, the department went through a major overhaul, including new leadership, a new headquarters and the modernization of tactics, equipment and training.

"I can't think of any better way to end this week than welcoming this recruit class," said Capt. Alford Brewington, addressing the graduates.

The revised training program, which Friday's graduates completed, was based on the Savannah, Ga. Fire Department's system. Savannah Fire Chief Charles G. Middleton addressed the graduates Friday, encouraging them to rise to the challenges that firefighters are presented with daily.

"My money's on you guys. You've proven you have the mettle to do this," Middleton said. " Can you find the mental toughness to do all this job requires? I think you will. But the question is: will you?"

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