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A 'MONSTER' TEST OF BRAINS AND BRAWN 60 teens compete for nine positions as fire cadets


Some drag the hose, others are dragged down by it.

Natarsha Banks gasped as the challenge sank in. The 150-foot fire hose, a cotton-jacketed rubber snake with alloy couplings, weighs about 150 pounds empty. The 17-year-old hadn't lifted weights or done aerobics.

To win one of 16 seats in Baltimore public schools' fire cadet training program, she would have to drag the hose 150 feet in four minutes.

"All I could think about was the money," said Natarsha, a Lake Clifton-Eastern High School junior who tried out last week for senior-year training that leads to a Baltimore Fire Department job. Of the 16 applicants, nine will become fire cadets, earning $15,000 a year plus benefits.

Using brawn and brains, Natarsha and 39 others advanced to the finals stage of the daunting application process.

More than 300 students had signed up this spring, and only 60 -- almost evenly divided by gender -- were invited to take the three-part test of physical agility, which is being used for the first time this year as a requirement for admission.

Compared with the prerequisites for other high school career academies -- such as law enforcement, Junior ROTC or finance -- this test, as one student put it, is a "monster."

Candidates climbed a ladder to the third-floor window of a brick building, touched the sill and returned to the ground in 90 seconds.

They lifted a 68-pound, 24-foot aluminum extension ladder from the ground to hooks standing at 5 feet 8 inches -- the height at which ladders hang on the side of city fire trucks.

And they coaxed the heavy fire hose to slide across the asphalt.

All this or they failed.

a test of will," said Donald P. Reed Jr., an aide to the fire chief who supervised the first graduating class of cadets last year. "We're looking for students who are flexible of mind enough to say, 'I don't have the brute strength, so how am I going to do this?' "

As a light drizzle fell over the back lot of the city fire academy, some candidates gave up before completing the three activities. Firefighters, parents and guests standing at the sidelines witnessed the students' tears of anguish. They heard the whines about the test's difficulty and the cheers of triumph.

One after another, the students lined up for the test many said they dreaded most.

Some grabbed the hose by the metal end and inched backward, tugging in vain. Some coiled the end around a shoulder and heaved against it. Some leaned so hard that they landed on the asphalt in a tangle of rubber and arms and legs.

Natarsha wrapped a hose end over her shoulder and around her waist like a long sash. She turned to face the finish line, sucked down a breath, and ducked her head. She pulled but went nowhere. As the loop around her began to squeeze, she howled and her eyes began to water. Finally, slowly, the hose shifted behind her and she leaned into the task.

"That's it," whispered Mr. Reed, as he clocked her time with a stopwatch. "That's the stuff. That's the kind of fortitude that it takes." She crossed the finish line in 3 minutes and 26 seconds and fell, gasping, into the the arms of her mother, Deborah Underwood.

"It hurts, Mom," Natarsha said through raspy panting. "It really hurts."

Mother described daughter as a young woman transformed. Ms. Underwood wanted Natarsha to go to college, but the young lady insisted she didn't want to. She wants to be an emergency medical technician and knew she would have to prove that she would do anything to achieve her goal.

"I thought of her as a spoiled girl, but now she's showing me a sign of maturity that I hadn't seen before," Ms. Underwood said.

Natarsha was among the six girls and 34 boys who completed all three exercises successfully. Many girls -- and many boys as well -- lacked the strength.

At 4 feet 10 inches tall and 95 pounds light, Toylanda Jefferson, 16, of Walbrook High School was serious and silent as she approached each station. She climbed to three stories in a third of the required time. Then she faced the ladder lift test.

Bent over a ladder that sat on the ground, she peeked up at the goal: Lifting the ladder at all would be a feat, hanging it on hooks 10 inches above her head, well. . .

She pulled and pulled, as classmates cheered. A few boys jeered. The ladder barely left the ground, but defeat, it seemed, was not in her vocabulary.

"I just wanted to come try out and to do my best," Toylanda said. "I didn't want to say, 'I'm too small.' I like the challenge and I think I compete as well as any guy."

The competition has just begun.

Next, the 40 finalists must complete a medical exam and a job interview. The 16 trainees chosen by June 15 will work as Fire Department interns this summer. In the fall, they will attend high school in the morning, then take fire-training classes in the afternoon. They must pass the same written tests required of firefighters to become certified.

"Even if they don't pass muster, they will have learned how to work in a team, how to follow orders, how to be disciplined," said Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr.

Of those who succeed, nine can look forward to at least a year at fire headquarters, working as hard at paperwork as they did on last week's agility exercises, warned members of the first cadet class.

Cadets will not be allowed to ride a truck to a fire or enter a burning building. First, they must ace more exams -- including another, tougher test of physical readiness.

"If I can make it through this, I can make it through almost anything," said finalist Jaleel Ogelsby, 18, a football player from Forest Park High School.

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