By Gina Herlihy

Hancock College

After more than 620 hours of classroom and field instruction, 29 cadets received their certificates of accomplishment from Hancock College’s Fire Academy in December.

Battalion No. 140 participated in a ceremony Dec. 8. at the college’s $38 million Public Safety Training Complex in Lompoc that was as extraordinary as the facility where they trained. The academy, which is certified by the California State Fire Marshal, meets all requirements for graduates to become entry-level firefighters.

“The academy is the heart of our community college — training brave men and women to enter careers in the public sector,” said Hancock Superintendent/President Kevin Walthers. “The fact that you, 29 individuals, have agreed to respond in the most serious emergencies in your communities speaks greatly of the commitment you are making to all of us, and we are extremely grateful for it.”

Before the ceremony, recruits amazed their friends and family with live demonstrations inside and outside of the complex’s six-story burn tower. With smoke already in the air from the Thomas Fire, recruits ran fire hoses, doused car and apartment fires, extricated, climbed ladders to gain roof access, and more.

Numerous cadets already have secured jobs with fire departments along the Central Coast, including Vandenberg, Atascadero, Cal Fire, Santa Barbara County and Santa Margarita fire departments. The remaining cadets are in the process of applying and interviewing with other departments across the state.

Frank Ortiz, retired fire chief of the Santa Maria Fire Department and current director of the college’s fire, environmental health and safety, and EMS programs, delivered the keynote address.

“You are about to begin a job in the most noble profession of our time,” Ortiz said. “Learning, especially in this profession, is a life-long experience. Graduates, if you stick to your fire career plan, you will be successful based on the high-level training and skills you received here at the academy.”

Brandon Gariffo, class president of Battalion No. 140, spoke on behalf of the graduating class to the hundreds of friends and family in attendance.

“This is the end of our academy, but only the beginning of our journey,” Gariffo said. “This academy taught me and my classmates to be humble and never stop learning. We all feel like we can accomplish anything, and we can’t wait to get on the front lines to make a difference, especially knowing about all of the wildfires burning across the state.”

Gariffo, a 42-year-old father of three, put his business as a pipeline contractor on hold to launch a career as a firefighter by enlisting in the fire academy. He thanked his wife and his classmates’ friends and family for their unconditional support during the past 18 weeks.

Gariffo also thanked Andy Densmore, the college’s fire academy coordinator.

“You told us at the beginning of the academy you were going to put greatness in front of us, and you did just that. We learned a lot from you and everyone that you put in front of us,” Gariffo said.

Graduates presented Densmore and the college with the class gift — a ladder that represented the climb they took to get to the top at the academy.