ROCKFORD (AP) — Confronted by the deafening hiss and intense heat of a flaming natural-gas leak, Mike DeLaRosa puts faith in his heavy layers of firefighting gear and ignores every human instinct to retreat.
He crouches low and walks through the wall of heat. He points what appears to be an overmatched dry-chemical fire extinguisher at the towering fire and cuts loose with two or three blasts, first at the base and then at an upper pipe.
Welcome to Firefighting 101, where the emergency is simulated but the flames are real.
"It's good to know your equipment works and you don't really feel the effects of the heat as you would wearing regular clothes," said DeLaRosa, 24.
"For me, it's about building confidence in my gear and equipment. And when I'm out there, I am really excited to learn how to put the fires out."
The U.S. Army National Guard veteran is one of 20 recruits in a 15-week basic training program with the Rockford Fire Department. The simulated gas fires were the first time many of the recruits had faced that kind of intense heat.
Once they are certified, the recruits will be assigned to engine companies as probationary firefighters for a year and bring the department to a crew of 252.
"It will be the first time in 13 years we reach fully authorized strength," Chief Derek Bergsten said. "But that will only last a short time because we always lose about 10 a year to attrition with retirements."
After probation, they will be re-evaluated and hired as permanent firefighters. Starting pay is $42,350 a year.
Until they are ready, the department is paying firefighters overtime to reach the required minimum staffing of 64 on duty every day.
There are a few black and Hispanic recruits, but no women in the class. Correcting a historic imbalance to better reflect the community it serves is a high priority, Bergsten said, but the composition of the latest class is, unfortunately, maintaining status quo.
More than 91 percent of Rockford firefighters are white and less than 4 percent are black, compared with 20.5 percent of the population; and less than 5 percent are Latino, compared with 16 percent of the population.
Bergsten said the department is working to cultivate minority recruits by working with the Rockford School District and establishing an Explorer Post. Both are designed to garner interest in firefighting among Rockford youths.
Recruits this week were learning to use portable fire extinguishers to put out gas, wood and electrical fires at Fire Station 6 on West State Street.
They will take a state firefighter basic test before they complete training. It includes studying fire science, practical lessons in putting out various types of fires, hazardous-materials training, various rescues, and ladder and rope training.
There is so much material that it seems like a crash course at times, even though the recruits are training eight hours a day.
"It's pretty realistic, this training with natural gas," Lt. Brian Drerup said. "We are using the same gas lines that are running through the city, so if someone is digging and broke a gas line ... these are the same type of fires you would have in those situations."
The training is physically demanding and more difficult than expected for an experienced firefighter, said Tom Butler, a 30-year-old recruit who has been a part-time firefighter for years in Cherry Valley.
He helped fight the massive fire sparked in June 2009 by a derailed Canadian National train carrying more than 2 million gallons of ethanol.
Despite his experience, it took Butler 12 years and more than five tries to pass Rockford's exams and join a family tradition as a third-generation firefighter.
"It's been in my blood since I was a little kid, and it's all I ever wanted to do," he said.