The larger-than-life firefighter bursts through an inferno of flames. He carries two fire victims slung over his shoulders and sprints to safety.

That's the kind of fantasy -- firefighter as superhero without the cape -- that Rosemount Fire Department leadership wants to dispel.

The reality: Good firefighters are agile and well-trained and know how to work as a team. And in many Twin Cities suburbs, they're volunteers.

In an effort to generate more interest in volunteer firefighting and dispel the superhero myth, Rosemount Fire hosted its first-ever agility training course. It allowed men and women to put on gear, experience the rigors of a timed test and get some pointers from firefighters overseeing the event.

The object is to increase the number of applicants who take the official test in the spring by attracting a wider swath of people, including women. A practice run could also help settle nerves for the real deal. In years past, some test-takers were so anxious that they ran around the side of the building to throw up.

"I've watched the numbers dwindle every year for recruitment," lamented Rosemount Fire Capt. Kevin Rambo. "It can be intimidating. We want to show people it's not."

Of the 20,600 firefighters in Minnesota, 18,600 are either volunteer or paid on-call, receiving a nominal fee for each emergency. Rosemount is paid on-call, with firefighters receiving $6 per incident.

"In many of the suburban departments, most of the firefighting is done by volunteers," explained Bruce West, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education. "It's more and more difficult to get people to volunteer. A lot of it is we are just so busy with families."

Rosemount Chief Scott Aker said staffing daytime hours is the department's biggest challenge. On-call firefighters have to respond to a call within four minutes.

Aker said he believes more applicants, including more women, could help fill the gap. He hopes hosting a practice agility course in the fall will make women feel more confident about taking the actual test in the spring.

The 42-member department has had women in the past but currently has none.

"We are lucky if we get one woman every other year we test," said Aker, a retired schoolteacher and the volunteer chief for the past 25 years. "We think the requirements are scaring them off before they try. The firefighters on television are predominantly male in the movies. They are superheroes on there."

A two-part test

This year's participants, seven men and one woman reporter from the local newspaper, put on about 50 pounds of gear -- boots, fire coat, pants, helmet and oxygen tanks -- for the agility course.

The course included a two-part test. Participants first completed a five-minute timed obstacle course that includes carrying a bundled hose up and down stairs, carrying an exhaust fan, lifting a 100-foot hose with a pulley, and dragging a 170-pound dummy.

For the second part, participants climbed the ladder truck in full gear. The ladder was extended 75 feet at a 45-degree angle.

Rosemount firefighters helped participants suit up and gave pointers on technique. Many assume the test is all about strength, but firefighters says it's actually more about cardio, proper technique and endurance.

Participants included a 19-year-old college student, a 39-year-old insurance executive and a 29-year-old locomotive driver.

Ryan Chartier, the insurance executive, finished the obstacle course in about 3 1/2 minutes. Chartier is a regular at the gym. He said the test was about what he expected.

Chartier said a friend, who is a volunteer firefighter, got him to thinking about it. He said his two children support his efforts to become a volunteer firefighter.

"They think it's cool," Chartier said. "They don't get too excited about my insurance job."

Rambo, an 18-year veteran volunteer of the department, said there's so much emphasis on personal fitness these days that test-takers appear to be in better shape now than in years past.

"Surprisingly enough, they come in better condition," said Rambo, who works as an industrial mechanic. "It's amazing how many people are runners and bikers."

Learning from firefighters

The practice also gave people an opportunity to chat with firefighters and learn more about the process of becoming firefighters. Applicants must pass a basic-skills written exam as well as complete the agility course in the allotted time.

After applicants officially join the force, they spend two years on probation, training, completing their state firefighter certification and observing.

"Our training rivals any fulltime firefighters' training. We are all essentially held to the same standard," Rambo said.

Bruce Sword joined the Rosemount Fire Department 10 years ago at age 40. Initially, he thought he was too old and worked too many hours at his day job. He was recruited to try out at a neighborhood block party. During his tryout, he finished the obstacle course in 2 1/2 minutes -- half the allotted time.

He said firefighting provides a nice contrast to his day job in sales.

"I do a lot of sitting and talking," Sword said.

He likes giving back to the community and the camaraderie and friendships he's developed with other firefighters.

Plus, like many others in the department, he's living out a childhood dream.

"Men are boys -- just older, and their toys get more expensive," Sword said. "Look what we get to drive."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.