First woman in more than 20 years attempts Georgia Smoke Diver certification

UPDATE: Dalton Firefighter Melissa Russell has made it through the Georgia Smoke Diver program. She is now Smoke Diver number 976.


Firefighters come from all over the country to train with the Georgia Smoke Divers.

The training is six days long. A group of 30 people set out to complete the course on Sunday. Now only 17 are left. One is a woman.

"I just count myself as one of them," Melissa Russell said. "It was just something I wanted to challenge myself with."

The last woman to make a go at the rigorous course did so 23 years ago.

In 2005, the program got an upgrade.

Since then, instructor David Rhodes says a woman hasn't even passed the test to qualify for this session.

"We have had several attempt," he said. "Melissa Russell a firefighter here at Dalton passed the firefighter test."

"I'm tired," Russell said. "But, I'm hanging in and fight through the weather and the adversity of the whole class."

Firefighters start at 6 a.m. and don't stop training until 9 or 10 o'clock at night.

Ben Edson is also taking the course.

"I had a partner and he got sick so it's been a grind," he said. "It's been a tough week but it shows how much grit you have."

Rhodes says it takes 70 certified smoke divers to train an incoming class of 30.

Russell's husband is also one of them this time.

"He's encouraged me and given me a lot of sound advice," she said.

This is her second attempt to achieve the certification.

"She's back for class 53 and it's Thursday and she's looking good," Rhodes said.

Gabe Shupe has been working with Russell since she dropped out of the last class. He says she's killing it.

"Absolutely. This has been my training partner for the last 12 weeks," he said. "We've worked really had to get where we are."

Rhodes says the purpose of the six day course is to train the firefighters when they're already tired.

"That repeated day after day after day really prepares you for disaster work," he said.

Disasters like the wildfires that raged across Northwest Georgia for weeks last November, are one place the skills would come in handy.

"It does help if there is a mutual aid request and these folks are out on long deployments," Rhodes said.

The training ends Friday afternoon.

Depend on NewsChannel 9 to let you know how many make it through.

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