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History of the Georgia Smoke Diver Program

The Beginning (1977-1978)

In 1978 Cortez Lawrence led a small group of dedicated Georgia firefighters to create an instructor base for the launch of the Georgia Smoke Diver Program.  The original course was based on training methodology originating in the European fire Class #1 Original Rosterservice.  Cortez (Smoke Diver #1) researched these techniques and combined them with training he received from the Florida Smoke Diver Course in 1977.  This first Smoke Diver class, held in December 1978 at the Southern Tech/Georgia Fire Academy Campus, graduated thirteen members who were deemed “the elite few, strong in mind and body”.  To mark the accomplishment a black t-shirt was designed along with a rocker patch.  The concept and vision of the Georgia Smoke Diver program would not have been possible without these visionaries and the partnership and commitment of Harold Thompson, Director of the Georgia Fire Academy.

Southern Tech (1978-1987)

Marietta Burn BldgFrom 1978 until 1995 two Smoke Diver courses were offered each year.  By 1987, the course had graduated 345 members out of nearly 700 candidates.  In 1987 an invitation was received from Washington State to deliver the Georgia Smoke Diver course as a pilot program at the Washington State Fire Academy in Snoqualmie, Washington.  Georgia Fire Academy Program Specialist and Smoke Diver Jeff Yoder secured funding and selected five Smoke Diver instructors to make the trip and conduct the training.  In true Smoke Diver fashion the group's number increased to 13 by the scheduled departure time.  The additional 8 instructors paid their own way to make Washington SD Runthe trip and spread the “good word”.  The group included Scott Millsap, Joel Yoder, Jeff Yoder, Mike Lee, Sidney “Dad” Martin, Joey Lane, Barry “Boz” Stephens, Bruce Davis, Willie Williams, David Rhodes, Mike “Trooper Rose” Kinsey, Mike Russell and Danny Dixon.  As a result, fifteen firefighters from Washington State became Smoke Divers.  The first graduating member was Craig Anderson of Oak Harbor Fire Department (Washington State Smoke Diver #1).

GPSTC (1987-1995)

GPSTC Burn BldgAs 1987 came to a close the Georgia Fire Academy moved from Marietta’s Southern Tech Campus to the new Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, Georgia.  Program Specialist and Smoke Diver Jeff Yoder continued to introduce additional enhancements to the course, including managing the class using the Incident Command System, mandatory rehab, compliance with NFPA Standards and instructor qualifications.  The Georgia Smoke Diver Program was the first fire department training course in Georgia to operate under an Incident Command System and meet the NFPA 1403 Standard.

Shortly after the move to the new GPSTC a policy change for academy programs GSD Certificatedropped the term “Certified” from all of its programs.  Instead students were only offered certificates of attendance for academy training.  The Georgia Smoke Diver Association under the leadership of Mike Lee continued to “Certify” the graduates and continued the tradition of issuing the parchment certificate along with the Smoke Diver Number.  This practice is still continued by the association today.

The End (1995)

A change in leadership at the Georgia Fire Academy created some very tumultuous times between the Smoke Diver instructors and the academy.  The dispute stemmed from a policy change that required every applicant to be admitted to any State class and that every attendee would receive a certificate of attendance.  The Smoke Diver instructors could not support what they deemed as training with no performance standards, and ultimately the Georgia Fire Academy dropped the program after the fall class of 1995.  Class #32 brought an end to the nearly 20 years of training.  The last Georgia Smoke Diver number issued in that class was #635 to Richard Bushman.

Underground (1995-2005)

From 1996 until 2005 several attempts were made by the instructors to bring the program back to the Georgia Fire Academy, but to no avail.  Scott Millsap decided GSD Rockerthat the Smoke Diver program was too valuable to the fire service to just let it die.  He worked with a small group of instructors and met with attorneys to figure out a way to deliver the program without the support of the state academy.  During this time the process to copyright and trademark the Smoke Diver name, course content and logo began.

In the summer of 1998 the Georgia Fire Academy began a major house cleaning Rescued File Storage Boxand disposed of old and unused items that were stored in the bottom of the training tower.  This included all the Smoke Diver records, outlines and some training props.  Smoke Diver and Fire Academy employee David Herndon could not bring himself to see the Smoke Diver course tossed in the dumpster.  He covertly moved the material to a location on campus and called instructor David Rhodes to advise him of the situation.  With that, Rhodes drove down and picked up all the items and secured them in a safe location.

In early 1999, Scott Millsap, David Rhodes, Joel Yoder and Mike Lee met at the O’Charley’s restaurant in Conyers, Georgia where the decision was made to update the course outlines, student manuals and begin a serious effort to deliver the course as an independent program.  Work continued for several years with meetings being held in Dalton, Conyers, and Lawrenceville.  Brent Hullender was working part time for Millsap’s company, ESE Training Associates, and was given the task of coordinating and putting together all of the revised information.

On September 23, 2002 Scott Millsap lost a ten year battle with cancer.  He left the Smoke Diver program to Hullender with a charge to finish it and carry it on.  Scott MillsapHullender contacted David Rhodes and they created a Board of Elders to be the stewards of the program and finish the work.  Those chosen were Joel Yoder, Wayne Johnson, Lee Stewart, Mike Lee and Don Sapp.  Along with Hullender and Rhodes the Board of Elders explored several options for course delivery.  The group came close to a deal with Griffin Technical College to host the program at the Spalding County Fire Department, but scheduling conflicts prevented carrying out the proposal.

In 2004 another attempt started to develop with Deputy Chief Bruce Satterfield (Smoke Diver #95) of the Dalton Fire Department.  As the details were being worked out a change in leadership occurred at the Georgia Fire Academy, which reopened communications with Smoke Divers.  With new fire academy leadership and a commitment from GPSTC Director Dale Mann to bring “high speed” advanced training to the training center, a wave of momentum grew.

The copyright and trademark of the Georgia Smoke Diver name, course and logo was secured on December 21, 2004.  A partnership between the Georgia Smoke Diver Association, the Georgia Fire Academy and the Georgia Public Safety Training Center was developing and restoring trust.

A New Beginning (2005)

On April 14, 2005, in a hotel room in downtown Indianapolis, Brothers Brent Hullender, David Rhodes, Merv McDonald, Doug Stephenson Westin Indianapolisand Donny Roberts met with fire academy leadership. All were attending or working at the Fire Department Instructors Conference.  The proposal was unveiled for the new Georgia Smoke Diver Program and the partnership that it would take to deliver the course.  The meeting was very positive and ended with a gentleman’s handshake that we would move forward.  The following day, a date was set for the return of the Georgia Smoke Diver Program to the Georgia Fire Academy.  Class #33 was scheduled with a start date of October 30, 2005.

The return of the Georgia Smoke Diver course after a 10 year absence was met with extreme enthusiasm.  In true Smoke Diver fashion the old instructors came back and put everything they had into ensuring the success of Class #33.  The Board of Elders was concerned about the number of instructors that were going to be able to commit the time needed to keep the course going.  The decision was made to hand pick the first class from those fire service members that were already instructors or already on their way.  Class 35 PictureIn other words, we realized we were all getting old and somebody had to be able to keep this thing going!  Each Elder was given 5 picks and a list of alternates was established.  At the end of the week, 15 were left.  During this class the practice of assigning Smoke Diver numbers alphabetically was abandoned and the numbers were issued based on the order of completion.  Harvey Cryder was the first to complete the final nuts and bolts evolution and 10 years were quickly erased with Smoke Diver #636.

Since 2005 the Georgia Smoke Diver class has continued to gain momentum and deliver quality life saving and life changing training.  Even when faced with the Georgia Fire Academy condemning their burn building we were able to find a way to continue.  While plans were being made to move the class to another location, the 1st Smoke Diver Leadership Academy and Instructor Development was held at GPSTC in place of the Spring 2009 class.  The instructors gathered for 6 days of PT, Axioms of Leadership, and training in decision making, communication and team building.

Additional out-of-state spots have been allotted for several years to further expand the good word around the country. In September of 2013, 16 Indiana graduates of the Georgia Smoke Diver program, led by Matt Stewart (GSD #662 - ISD #1), conducted the first Indiana Smoke Diver class.  The Indiana Smoke Diver Association is now fully functional and holds the Indiana Smoke Diver class each October.

Georgia Smoke Diver classes were held at the Dalton Fire Department’s Training Center from the fall class of 2009 to the fall class of 2013, while the 2nd Georgia Smoke Diver Leadership Academy was held at GPSTC in March of 2012.  In spring of 2014 the class was moved back to GPSTC where a new burn building was in place and functioning, with classes 48, 49 and 50 held there.

The 3rd Georgia Smoke Diver Leadership Academy was held in November of 2015. The Academy was dedicated to GSD Instructor #283 Gary Baggett, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident just a few short weeks after he had taught at class 50. Over 100 Smoke Divers gathered to honor #283 and support his family.

For Class 51 (spring of 2016) the Elders decided to move the class back to Dalton, GA. This move was to the delight of the instructor cadre who missed the outstanding support and hospitality of the Dalton Fire Department and the Dalton community.  When asked about the decision to move the course back, Chief Elder and Smoke Daddy David Rhodes said “There is such a historical connection in Dalton with our program, and after the initial move in 2009 it just really became our home. We couldn’t ask for a better partnership between the program, local department and the community.”


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