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After a baptism by flood, rookie Calgary firefighters finally celebrate graduation

Calgary deputy fire chief Tom Sampson, left, and Mayor Naheed Nenshi stop and chat with a new firefighter as they inspect the new recruits at a graduation ceremony on July 18, 2013. The new firefighters had been pulled away from training to battle the city’s recent floods.

TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

It was education interrupted by real life.

A graduation ceremony Thursday honoured 40 Calgary fire department recruits who saw their training cut short by the floods last month as they were pulled into the mad rush to evacuate tens of thousands of city residents.

"They were plucked out of their training, they were thrown into the front lines of this disaster," Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in his speech to the new firefighters, their families and friends.

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Calgary Fire Chief Bruce Burrell said throughout his three-decade career, which includes recruit training in Halifax before he moved to Calgary eight years ago, students have often asked whether they would be yanked out of class to help if a major emergency broke out. His answer has always been no – there's no way recruits would be put to work.

"I've never seen it done before. But we've never come in contact with a flood like this before," said Chief Burrell, who stepped away from his regular duties to act as director of Calgary's Emergency Management Agency during the floods.

"We were at the point where we were using bylaw officers, transit police officers – we were using anybody we could find in uniform."

With the Bow and Elbow Rivers raging at up to 10 times their normal flows four weeks ago, the recruits were part of teams that went door to door to make sure the city's riverside neighbourhoods had been fully cleared. After the waters receded, they spent their days moving debris and garbage, and pumping water out of flooded basements.

"In the middle of their training, they actually got some experience to go out and help citizens in a way that typically you only experience once in your career," Chief Burrell said. "It will help bind them together. They will be a stronger class."

The probationary firefighters still have classes and training to make up for time missed during the floods, and won't be sent to out to Calgary fire halls for several weeks.

New firefighter Matt McLean, 26, said "it was a great feeling being thrown out there and being able to help the city when it was needed the most."

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