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'More than co-workers': 12 academy graduates join ranks of Rapid City Fire Department

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Instead of lacing up their shoes for the traditional graduation run, 12 of Rapid City’s newest firefighters ceremonially burned their red recruit shirts Friday, marking an end to three months of intensive training designed to prepare their minds and bodies for the stresses of the job.

“Picking up on something new in 12 weeks crammed a lot into my brain, but they’ve done a good job and it was a lot of fun,” said graduate Mason Harlan.

Harlan, 21, is the son of Rapid City Fire Department Section Chief Hunter Harlan. He was a junior at the University of South Dakota studying kinesiology when the interviews opened.

RCFD Graduation 6

Mason Harlan, 21, is the son of Rapid City Fire Department Section Chief Hunter Harlan. He followed in his father's footsteps and graduated RCFD's Fire Training Academy on Friday. 

“I just thought I might as well put my name in,” he said.

He’ll now get his degree in Health Sciences and go through Emergency Medical Technician school in February. All of Rapid City’s firefighters are dually trained as either paramedics or EMTs.

Harlan said his favorite part of the training was meeting the other recruits, many of whom are not from the Rapid City area, like 36-year-old Jeremy Atwell, who was a firefighter in California before moving to South Dakota. Atwell agrees the camaraderie is a major part of the training.

“I’ve only known most of them for 12 weeks, but I feel like I’ve known them for years,” he said.

RCFD Graduation 5

Jeremy Atwell, 36, left his firefighting job in California to move to Rapid City and work with the Rapid City Fire Department. Atwell graduated on Friday alongside 11 of his classmates.

The recruits are so close that they even showed up at the hospital when Atwell’s wife had a baby.

The training, he said, has more book-work than people realize.

“There’s a lot of temperatures and pressures and gallonage and how much hose we need,” Atwell said. “Just all kinds of different things. There’s a ton of stuff on the academic side.”

The academics are thoughtfully supplemented with real-world training, designed to build relationships and trust between firefighters, instructor Donavin Neugebauer said.

RCFD Graduation 7

Donavin Neugebauer, whose been with the RCFD for nearly six years, took a major role as an instructor in this year's Fire Training Academy. Neugebauer said he's helped before by teaching a class or two, but this year, he committed to the entire 12-week academy.

“It’s one thing to read it in a book or go through a PowerPoint or hear people talk about it,” he said. “But once they get to take that knowledge and go to a building and try to make it as real as possible, then they can start making those muscle connections for those times when maybe they get a little excited or nervous. They can fall back on that hands-on training [and] that muscle memory.”

The burning of the shirts was an emotional end to a grueling 12 weeks, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the burn barrel, these recruits took a collective step forward, becoming more than just co-workers.

For some, it’s a lifelong dream realized.

“As a kid watching the fire trucks go down the road lights and sirens, I mean, that’s the coolest thing in the world,” Harlan said. “So to be on the back of one of those engines is gonna be pretty sweet.”

The official graduation ceremony is held privately in the afternoon, at which graduates receive their badges in front of friends, family and other firefighters. The 12 graduates will join the rest of the RCFD by starting their regular shifts on Monday.

Contact Darsha Dodge at

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