Cliff Williams / The Outlook Fire recruits complete a nuts and bolts drill in the dark. Recruits are required to find victims in the dark and then assemble a bolt with washers and a nut from the parts in the dark all while wearing turnout gear.

Nuts and bolts are the basic building blocks to almost everything — even becoming a firefighter.

Fifteen soon-to-be firefighters learned that lesson this week searching more than 5,000 square feet of dark cold space filled with cubicles, offices, tires and wires to find two nuts, a bolt and three washers.

“There are six instructors in there,” Alexander City Fire Department Capt. Jeff Brewer said. “Each instructor has a part.”

The 15 fire recruits have to crawl on their hands and knees trying to find the instructors buried in shelves and desks.

“Until they find all six instructors, they can’t come out,” Brewer said. “They come up to an instructor and say, ‘I’m firefighter recruit X. Do you have something for me?’ They say their name because a lot of time they find the same instructors. They miss people and have to go back.”

Just because the recruits have found all of the parts doesn’t mean they can leave the darkness yet. The parts have to be assembled in the order shown to the recruits earlier in the day.

“They have to come out with it in this order,” Brewer said. “That is the hardest part is — putting it together with gloves on. Every once in a while I will catch them cheating, putting it together without their gloves on. They aren’t supposed to be doing that. It has to be in order. It’s called nuts and bolts drill. It’s pretty tough.”

Deven Still is originally from Lafayette and is training to be an Opelika firefighter. Still was one of the first in the dark office space for the nuts and bolts drill Thursday morning but an hour later was still in the dark. Still could be found crawling looking for one last part.

“Some do very good, some just miss,” Brewer said. “They get so familiar with it they just start randomly crawling.”

Brewer laughed when Still knocked something over.

“You found a curtain round,” Brewer said. “You can have it for a souvenir.”

Still was still in the dark but took advantage of the curtain rod.

“I want to find the small washer,” Still said.

Still used the curtain rod like a fire pole. It extended her reach making the search in the dark easier. Minutes later she exited the dark office with curtain rod in hand.

“It is a mental thing,” Brewer said. “They get in there and can’t find it and get frustrated. They get every part but one. They know they have been through that thing twice but guess what, they have to go through it again because they missed it.”

Some recruits were able to complete the task in seven to eight minutes. The basic search and rescue is done while breathing through the firefighter’s mask. It is all to help the recruits get over the anxiety of being in the dark in an unknown environment so when the recruits respond in a real situation they know the feeling.

The recruit school has firefighter hopefuls from Opelika, Lafayette and Alexander City — 15 in all this time around.

In the dark Brewer recognizes one of ACFD’s recruits Evan Williams and asks how he is doing near the exit door.

“I’ve got one,” Williams said.

Williams airpack was vibrating, not a good sign in a real fire.

“You’ve got a ways to go,” Brewer told Williams. “You are about out of air.”

The nuts and bolts drill helps the recruits work on breathing.

“You are supposed to breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth,” Brewer said. “It saves air but as you get tired, it’s all through the mouth. This is not a tiring drill, but mentally it’s tough.”

In a real fire, the vibrating airpack means trouble is ahead for the firefighter as they are running out of air.

“When his air alarm goes off they would come out,” Brewer said. “Here today, I’ve told them to take it off and flip back to the belt. Some will take three or four bottles to get through this.”

But the nuts and bolts drill is not a likely real world scenario where a firefighter goes into a fire alone.

“It’s not realistic because they are doing it by themselves,” Brewer said. “In a real world environment, there would be a team doing it. It teaches you. It is pitch black just like in the real world. You are not allowed to use flashlights. In the real world you would have flash lights and thermal imaging. They will have that kind of stuff to use. Today it is just them and the dark searching. It teaches them to search every space.”

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.