The moon was just rising as North Naples fire Deputy Chief Michael Swanson gave the orders.
Approach slowly. Work as a team. Ration your air.
"This is a serious atmosphere," Swanson told the team. "We need to be serious about it."
Within minutes two lines of four marched lock-step toward a propane tank engulfed in flames. The smell of propane lingered in the air as they approached, hoses poised to cool the tank so the officer in the middle bends down and turns it off.
For the 11 North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District firefighters monitoring the situation, it's just another day on the job. But for the 18 North Naples fire academy candidates attempting to put out an unstoppable propane fire, it's a necessary training exercise before the January state exam that will determine whether they are fit to be firefighters.
Academy officials said recently that despite shrinking fire budgets, dwindling benefits and a wobbly job market, enrollment at the school has stayed steady in recent years.
And while candidates have been warned about the turbulent job market, students said they plan to do whatever it takes to get a job in a fire district or municipal department, even if it means months of more education and rigorous training.
"This is a profession where it doesn't matter what the pay is ... good or bad times, you love it," said Michael Jimenez, the academy's coordinator. "It's your pride and joy."
The seven-month, 510-hour class starts in the classroom.
It's not easy. Sometimes it isn't fun.
But Patrick Giacobbe, an academic instructor and spokesman at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala, said the lessons students learn are invaluable to their future.
Fire academies like North Naples' are regulated by the state Bureau of Fire Standards and Training, and all of them follow a similar curriculum. The goal: Prepare students for the state minimum standards exam.
"Essentially what they're doing is teaching standardized courses," Giacobbe said. "It's essentially job requirements, and basically it says that a firefighter ... is required to do this, this and this."
The North Naples' program is offered through Edison State College, and Dennis DiSarro, the emergency services director, said it's run just like any other program offered through the school. That means students need to take a college level entry placement test — much like the SAT or ACTs — and enroll in the college before they can start classes. Two classes are offered each year.
Students learn things like fire chemistry and how to handle evidence. They're also put through rigorous physical training, learn how to use scuba gear during emergency operations and how to properly perform an extrication.
Thirty people were enrolled in the North Naples class six months ago. Eighteen remained when graduation rolled around in December.
"I tell them the truth: This is not an English class. This is not a math class," Jimenez said. "But hopefully when you're done you can apply (for a job) and start a career."
But before students can apply for a job and get to work, they need to pass the state minimum standards exam.
The two-day test involves a written exam and a timed practical exam.
The state administered 2,479 minimum standards exams in 2010. Giacobbe said 2,007 students — more than 80 percent — received a passing score.
North Naples' passage rate mirrors that of the state. The rate, however, only reflects the students who passed the test during the on-site exam day.
Students who fail the tests in January, for example, will be given an opportunity to retake the test in Ocala. If they pass the test there they become a certified firefighter, but their passing score isn't factored in to an individual school's passage rate.
Students who pass the minimum standards exam become state certified firefighters and can be employed by fire districts or municipal departments anywhere in the state.
But that certification is often just the first step in finding a job.
No one just gets hired as a just firefighter nowadays.
It's not like when John Reilly, a North Naples battalion chief and academy instructor, became a firefighter in 1989. Back then he got hired right off the street and the department paid for him to go to fire school to get his certification.
But now applicants are coming in with certifications it took Reilly nearly a decade of on-the-job training to achieve. Most are coming in with emergency medical technician certifications, and others are already certified paramedics.
"It's not just put the wet stuff on the red stuff anymore," Jimenez said.
And if more education means a better position when it comes to finding a job, 25-year-old candidate Alexis Kapayiannidis, the only woman in the class, is ahead of the game.
Kapayiannidis started off wanting to be a dentist, but when that didn't happen she decided to shift to a degree in nursing.But nursing is a competitive field, and Kapayiannidis said she decided to pursue her EMT certification first and begin training to become a paramedic. EMT training meant logging lots of hour on a truck with firefighters, and Kapayiannidis was drawn to the profession.
"I got to know the firefighters and I look up to them," she said.
She decided to apply to the fire academy in April. One of the motivating factors, she said, was she didn't think she'd immediately get in to paramedic school.
Instead she was accepted to both the fire academy and paramedic training, and decided to simultaneously pursue her certifications.
"It's rough, I wouldn't tell anyone to do it," she said. "It was hard doing both. You're always having a test ... and when finals came it was like 'oh crap, which do I study for.'"
But Jimenez said Kapayiannidis has done well in the program, even with her demanding schedule.
Kapayiannidis said she knows the additional certifications will give her a leg up when she's applying for jobs in the future.
"I'm not worried," she said. "I am going to have the paramedic certificate too. That makes me more marketable. The more education you're going to have ... the further you're going to go."
And while candidates are encouraged to continue their education, some Southwest Florida fire officials said more degrees doesn't always make it easier to get a job.
Chris Tobin knows exactly what newly certified firefighters will face when they start looking for a job.
Tobin, president of the Collier Professional Firefighter and Paramedics Union, has watched as firefighters have been laid off and budgets were slashed throughout the county.
Nine firefighters were recently laid off from the East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District. Five were rehired earlier this month.
East Naples will join the Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District and the Immokalee Fire Control and Rescue District in asking voters to increase the tax rate cap in January.
"Trying to find a fire or EMS job is difficult these days," Tobin said. "When finances are tight ... one of the first things on the chopping block is emergency services, which is a shame because actually ... there's not enough people on the fire trucks or medic units."
But with so many unemployed professionals out there, newly certified firefighters will now be fighting with veterans for a limited number of jobs.
"The reality is that the job market is extremely challenging," Golden Gate fire Chief Robert Metzger said. "It's hard for someone without experience to secure the jobs. Employers are more likely to look at prospective employees who have some experience, some positive work history. But that's not to say (new firefighters) don't have any prospects."
And all that education instructors at fire academies have been pushing, while helpful and needed in the long run, could be prohibitive when it comes to finding a job in a short term.
Big Corkscrew Island Chief Rita Greenberg said while a firefighter who is also certified as a paramedic is a perk, that's not something a basic life support agency like Big Corkscrew Island would need right now.
The same goes for Golden Gate.
"Here in Golden Gate we don't have an (advanced life support) program," Metzger said. 'While we would like to develop one, if I'm hiring a new firefighter (now) I'm not concerned if they have their paramedic certification or not."
Still Tobin said training is important, especially in a bad job market.
"It's going to be hard to keep the certifications," he said. "Keep going to school."
North Naples fire academy coordinator Jimenez tells candidates to draw circles on the map.
The first one shows how far you'll travel for a job in the first six months; the second circle shows how far you'll travel in the next six months and so on and so on.
In recent years about 30 percent of North Naples academy graduates ended up with jobs in Collier County; 50 percent ended up with jobs either Collier or Lee counties. That's a small number in good times, and as budgets and staffs shrink the local hiring rate has decreased as well.
But some fire officials said there may be jobs available in other parts of the state that didn't see as large of a decline in property values. Fire districts and municipal departments are primarily paid for through property tax revenue.Joe Mason, 41, is hopeful he'll end up with one of those rare local jobs.
Mason, the class leader, is one of the oldest students in the 2011-02 class. He's fulfilling a life-long dream, and one that he hopes he can turn into a career when the grueling class is complete.
"It's been very physical and very mentally challenging too," he said. "It's a whole different type of job."
Mason has a background as a contractor and said the construction slowdown meant it was a good point to go through the academy. He's also married with two children, making getting a job after passing the exam crucial.
"I know it's not a good market right now, but I'm going to be persistent and continue my education," said Mason, who is already a certified EMT. "I'm going to put myself in the best position (I can)."
Jimenez said Mason has the right attitude, and it's one that's reflected by all of the candidates in the program. But when it comes down to it the key to finding a job may not just be education.
"It's all about passion," he said. "That what keeps us going."