Jimmy Williams saw the opportunity as the best of both worlds: He could earn his firefighter certification and still work his shifts at the Thomson Fire Department.
So he signed up to be part of the first group of graduates from Augusta Tech's Firefighter I program.
"Instead of being gone for a whole month, they break it up so you can still work," Mr. Williams said Saturday during a practice burn for the class in Thomson.
In the past, the main avenue for firefighters to earn their certification was to attend an intensive, multiweek course at the Georgia Fire Academy. The Augusta Tech class spreads a similar curriculum - based on the National Fire Association's National Professional Qualification Firefight 1 level - over two quarters, said Jerry A. Asbach, the Fire Science Technology Department Head at Augusta Tech.
Such certification is becoming part of job requirements for new firefighters locally and across the nation.
Thomson Fire Chief Rick Sewell said the class seems to be working well and could prove very beneficial in the future.
"The thing that I look forward to is the fact that, hopefully, in the future it would create us a pool of potential applicants to maybe choose from when we have an opening," Chief Sewell said. "Instead of hiring somebody, having to send them to school and train them, I'm hoping that eventually these classes will produce a pool that we can just say 'Hey we've got an opening.' And we'll get some applicants for that."
Mr. Asbach said the class can also save fire departments some money and potential headaches.
"A lot of fire departments are not wanting to go through the trouble of training at the basic level, only to find out the person may not work out," he said.
The current class includes 14 firefighters. Students have been meeting regularly at Augusta Tech's Thomson campus, and training with support from McDuffie County Fire Services, the City of Thomson Fire Department and Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue.
The students will graduate in March, and the next class - which will rotate to Augusta Tech's Waynesboro campus - has already received a lot of interest, Mr. Asbach said.
Saturday's training session in the Cherokee neighborhood allowed students to work on extinguishing a one-room fire, a multi-room fire and, finally, a fully-involved structure.
McDuffie County Fire Chief Bruce Tanner said the class went well.
"It's certainly going to give them another avenue to get certification from, and it's cheaper on the department because HOPE pays for it," Chief Tanner said. "...I believe it is going to be helpful for all recruiting agencies in the CSRA."
Mr. Williams, who also works as a volunteer firefighter for McDuffie County, said he's learned a lot in the classroom - even though he has more than seven years of battling blazes. He said he'd encourage long-time firemen to take the class as a refresher.
"A lot has changed in seven-and-a-half years," he said. "(On the job,) you learn the quickest way to put out a fire. Here, they teach you to do it the safest way."