AKRON, Ohio — Xavier Brown realized a lifelong dream on Tuesday when he graduated from the Akron fire cadet class and became a firefighter.
"The moment was everything. It culminated 13 weeks of training that we did, but now my eyes are on the future and being able to go out and help our community," Brown said.
Brown, 27, was among 16 men and women who graduated from the the city's first cadet class since 2019.
The group was sworn in by Mayor Dan Horrigan. A short time later, loved ones pinned badges on the uniforms of the new firefighters.
During the ceremony at the Akron Public Library, Brown spoke about the grit and determination it takes for the job.
"We have chosen this profession not just for the paycheck, but everything that comes along with being an Akron firefighter," he said.
Another member of the graduating class, Ben Feeman, 30, of Tallmadge, said perseverance paid off in helping him get to this point.
"This is probably the second or third test I've taken to get hired here and I'm happy that I was finally able to achieve that," Feeman said.
The group arrives on the job at a time when the Akron Fire Department is facing some serious staffing challenges.
Chief Clarence Tucker said the new hires bring the total number of firefighters to 343, but the authorized strength of the department is 377.
"Staffing shortages are always concerning," Tucker said. "After you get so short, and for us that number is 30 or 40 people, then it becomes hard to function and have people in their positions every day."
Tucker said there are many reasons the department is facing a firefighter shortage, including retirements, resignations to take other jobs, burnout and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Our run volume has increased, and just like everyone else in the community, we've had people that have come down with COVID," Tucker said.
Department leaders said response times remain good, but firefighters have been heading to more calls with less staff.
According to Lt. Sierjie Lash, calls throughout Akron were averaging between 120 to 140 a day.
"In recent days, we've had up to 160 calls with some stations having about 24 calls in one day," Lash said.
Brown and Feeman said they stand ready to do their part to lighten the load.
"We were hired to make an impact in our community and in the department and that's what we're doing, hopefully, with us coming in," Brown said.
"I'm excited to get out there and the help the guys that are out there getting beat up day in and day out," Feeman said. "Being able to have that first class out, it kind of gives them new light."
The Akron Fire Department is planning to hire another class in January of 2022 and may add an additional class in the fall.