The Bluffton Township Fire District held graduation Friday for a recruit-school class, among them two men over 40 who took unconventional paths to becoming firefighters.
They came to the firehouse after working in restaurants and a janitorial business.
Through their nine weeks of recruit training at Bluffton Township Fire District, Bruce Bartolotto and Duke Novak carried the accomplishments, setbacks and wisdom they accumulated over 40-plus years as they took a different route to their passions.
Like many firefighters, Bartolotto, 46, and Novak, 40, dreamed of donning a uniform from a young age.
But the two men, who graduated from recruit school Friday, also came with families and a desire to stick close to home while they move into new careers. For the first time this year, the district made that possible.
Rather than send its 13 recruits to train at the S.C. Fire Academy -- which requires them to sleep at the Columbia center for nine weeks from Sunday night to Friday night -- the district held its own program entirely in-house. That change should save money in the long run, cutting down on the costs of tuition, housing and food, Capt. Randy Hunter said.
For Bartolotto, who owned a janitorial company before the Great Recession, training just off Fording Island Road also saved time. He didn't have to wait until after graduation to work on another one of his goals -- spending time with his son.
"He's going to turn 12 this week, and I've missed a lot of his life," said Bartolotto, who lives in Bluffton. "I just want to be a better family person, to do something where you can actually have great memories, and that'll give you great satisfaction."
That's something he didn't find in his previous work. Growing up poor in upstate New York, without heat or running water, Bartolotto had always thought he would find happiness in money. But even when his business was at its peak, cleaning about 150 offices per week in southern Beaufort County, he wasn't happy.
Five years later, inspired by a friend who worked for the fire district, Bartolotto decided to make a change.
Novak, the second-oldest recruit in this year's class, did the same. The Hilton Head Island man spent years working in food service, always expecting the next promotion to bring happiness. It never came. Last spring, he began looking for opportunities in a field that would allow him to give back to the community.
Both men passed a physical agility test, written exam and interview to join the district's hiring pool in April 2013. About four months ago, Chief John Thompson decided there were enough open positions to warrant an in-house training school. Then on Jan. 6, Novak, Bartolotto and 11 other recruits for the fire district, the Hardeeville Fire Department and the Sheldon Fire District got started.
After weeks of drills, physical conditioning, equipment training and courses, the recruits graduated Friday during a ceremony at district headquarters. Now, they're ready to respond to emergency calls.
"This job here, you provide for 246 square miles of community, not just your neighbor or whoever walks into your grocery store," Novak said. "That's something you don't get at normal jobs."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
- 26 firefighters begin training at Bluffton Fire District, April 30, 2013: http://bit.ly/1i9NyXb