Howard fire trainee class has bit of everything

Chung Shen Peter Huang knows a thing or two about taking a chance.

As a teenager, the Taiwan native took a chance on America, moving here to attend college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where he graduated with a degree in political science. For nearly 10 years while working as a risk analyst for Morgan Stanley, it was part of Huang's job to analyze and take chances.

On Friday, Huang realized the culmination of another chance. The 31-year-old, along with 25 others in his trainee class, graduated from the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescues Services Academy at a ceremony held Aug. 8 inside Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia.

"I want to be able to reach out and help the community, so I decided to take the plunge and get into emergency services," Huang said after the ceremony clutching his certification.

Huang, who said he was naturalized as an American citizen while training at the academy, said the decision to leave Morgan Stanley was not an easy one, and it didn't come without second thoughts.

"I thought after the first day; I seriously contemplated calling up my former bosses and saying 'Can I just come back? I don't think this is for me,'" Huang said. "It was challenging [at Morgan Stanley], but not as challenging as being in the fire service."

Huang, who will be stationed at Station 6 in Savage, said it was his fellow trainees and instructors that ultimately influenced his decision to stick it through. That makes sense considering Huang is not the only graduate going through a life-changing move.

Six months ago, Thomas Skiles was a 44-year-old engineer with more than 20 years experience working at Development Facilitators Inc. in Millersville. This week, Skiles became a 45-year-old – his birthday was Aug. 3 – firefighter recruit in Howard County.

Skiles said he was "burnt out" by engineering. As a way to cool off, he decided to fight fires, ironically enough.

"It was a tough decision," Skiles said. "My former company was very good to me, so to leave that for [HCDFRS] took a lot for me to do."

For Skiles the decision came down to one thing: family. His father and brothers-in-law are all firefighters in Anne Arundel County, but he was motivated by other familial factors too.

"I have a three-year-old and a six-year-old, and I want to be able to spend as much time as I can with them," he said. "I thought this would be an opportunity to do that."

Skiles will be stationed at Station 11 in Scaggsville.

For St. Mary's County resident Christina McGee, Friday's ceremony was just the latest graduation in a series of graduation's she hopes to experience in her life. Last June, McGee graduated from Strayer University with a Master's Degree in business management. Her decision to begin studying for the fire service less than a year later was spurred by a desire to make a difference, she said.

"I've been a volunteer firefighter for 10 years," she said. "I can't see myself sitting behind desk."

What's more, McGee plans to begin taking online classes in the fall so she can work toward a degree in Biology. Her ultimate goal is to attend medical school. She said all of the education and work is building toward one mission: helping people.

"I love helping people, as cliche as it sounds," she said.

McGee, who was one of eight women in the class, which is a department record, has been assigned to Station 1 in Elkridge.

Assistant Chief Eric Proctor said 31 trainees were selected from a pool of 1,500 applications submitted from across the country. He said only 26 made it through the six month academy.

He said the academy is rigorous and includes a mix of practical training, classroom work and fitness.

"It's a very military type environment. We instill discipline, and fitness is held at a very high level," Proctor said. "We are preparing these people to be firefighters."

Proctor said it is not unusual to have a number of trainees on their second or third career. He chalks it up to the instability in the job market.

"I think it is probably an economic thing," Proctor said.

Proctor added that it is usually a plus for the department since most of these trainees are coming in with college degrees.

"We require people, to be promoted, to have degrees," he said. "A lot of these guys already have it."

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