Training for volunteer firefighters is demanding, time-consuming
By Laurelle Walsh
They work at Hank’s Harvest Foods, the electric co-op, and for the U.S. Army. They may be self-employed entrepreneurs or retired professionals. They may change your oil at Quality Lube or prepare your lunch at Glover Street Market. Some are carrying on a family tradition and one has been doing it for over 40 years.
The firefighters – professional and volunteer – of Okanogan County Fire District 6 respond to emergency calls in the middle of the night and in the middle of the work day. They are trained to fight structure fires and wildland fires and to extract people from vehicle accidents. They cover an area of 350 square miles, from Lost River to Gold Creek and every place in between.
Training to become a firefighter is rigorous and time-consuming; once a volunteer’s application is approved by the district chief, he or she can expect to put in upwards of 600 hours within a two-year period to earn the title of “firefighter.”
Volunteers may begin responding to emergency calls right away, putting in unknown hours per month in a dirty, sweaty, exhausting and dangerous job for which they are compensated $10 per call, regardless of time spent away from home.
So why do it?
District Chief Don Waller believes that most of the 36 volunteers step forward because they want to help people. Assistant Chief Cody Acord says for him it’s the camaraderie that comes with the job. Winthrop Station Captain John Owen says he does it for the public service, as well as for the mental and physical challenge.
A sense of civic responsibility is what’s driving new recruit Kristina Liu to become a firefighter. “Someone has to help fight fires and pull traffic control for vehicle accidents,” says Liu. “Why should I assume someone else will do it? I’d rather help.”
Liu is nearing the end of a six-year contract with the Army Reserves, and says she has been searching for something similar in nature. “Volunteer firefighting fits the bill close enough with a lot more freedom than the military has ever granted,” she says. Liu is currently taking online courses while going through recruit training.
Six other volunteers join Liu in the current recruit class: Ryan Audett, Dave Crosby, Shane Higbee, Jake Pennock, Derek Poindexter and James Randolph. They all completed a three-month probationary period before starting recruit training.
“It’s probationary both ways,” according to Chief Waller. “It gives them an idea of what they are committing to, and some people find out it’s not particularly what they want to do.”
At the start of the probationary period, the candidate is issued the text Essentials of Fire Fighting and a nine-page Task Book that, among other things, maintains a record of the 150 physical skills of firefighting they must learn before earning the title of firefighter. The Task Book must be completed within 24 months.
Probationary firefighters may start responding to fires after orientation, though “it’s mostly observation at that point,” according to Assistant Chief Acord. “Observing experienced firefighters on calls is a very important part of learning what we do.”
After the probationary period, new recruits complete 72 hours of online, classroom and hands-on instruction, in addition to participating in Thursday night drills along with the rest of the force. During this time they learn skills that support firefighters at the scene of an emergency, such as changing air bottles, putting up ladders, pulling and tending hoses, and setting up an extrication tarp at the site of a vehicle accident.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” says training coordinator Owen. “It’s to everybody’s benefit to get recruits the knowledge to operate safely and quickly.”
New recruit Dave Crosby has found the training to be more demanding than he expected. “When I joined I wasn’t aware of the amount of physical strain it requires,” he says. “There are times when I think I bit off more than I wanted, and others where I have fun and find it enjoyable.”
Crosby recently moved to Mazama after retiring from Bayliner in Arlington, Wash., and began firefighter training to help out and get more involved in the community. “Learning new things has been good and the people [of Fire District 6] are really good people to be around,” he says.
Fellow recruit Derek Poindexter is fulfilling a childhood dream of being a fireman. For him, firefighting is not about the pay, but about protecting homes, families and livelihoods, he says.
“I’m doing this because I want to protect our community, save lives and be a role model to our younger generations,” Poindexter says. “Somebody’s got to do it and one of those somebodies is gonna be me.”
Recruits wear black gear and helmets to clearly identify their level of training during practice drills and when responding to incidents. “I drill it into them that if they’re asked to do something they are unsure of it’s OK to say, ‘I’m not ready for that,’” says Captain Owen.
Owen also drills the volunteers on skills that you might not expect, such as speaking loudly and moving safely. “I work with them to speak in a commanding voice. The scene of a fire is a noisy place; you can’t have people mumbling or speaking softly,” he says. “I also teach them not to run on the scene. It’s a hard habit to break; when you tell someone to go get something quickly, they tend to want to run. But in our gear it’s easy to trip and fall. Our motto is, ‘You need to get there safe.’”
The current class is expected to “test out” on Sept. 14. Another class of five – Gene Austin, Alan Fahnestock, Jake Hoffman, Josh Jankowski and Andrew Winch – finished recruit training earlier this summer, demonstrating proficiency in 54 basic skills, and “graduating” at a party on July 4.
“It’s a pretty good year when we can run two recruit schools,” says Owen.
If they choose to continue, the recruits are then called firefighter trainees and spend another 240 hours learning fire behavior and advanced equipment skills, eventually participating in search and rescue and live-fire training at the Washington State Fire Training Academy in North Bend.
All district firefighters must maintain annual certification in CPR and first aid, wildland fire fighting, and Emergency Vehicle Incident Prevention – also known as driver training. They also review pump operations annually and take quarterly timed tests in the use of air packs (self-contained breathing apparatus).
Thursday night drills throughout the year maintain or advance the skills of all firefighters in the district, regardless of training level.
“We train to maintain our skills or to correct something that is observed on scene,” says Chief Waller.
Station drills are done at individual stations in Carlton, Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama, and district-wide drills are done at the Winthrop station, Liberty Bell High School or other locations around the valley.