Training Rural Departments

By CHRIS SHAY

Before I was hired in Nov-ember 2005 by the San Juan County (NM) Fire Department (SJCFD), I had been a firefighter for the White Sands Test Facility and a fire investigator for Dona Ana County (both in Las Cruces, New Mexico), as well as a volunteer with the small rural Mesilla (NM) Fire Department. We did not make a lot of runs, but we did a lot of training. I arrived at the SJCFD with a mindset on training, but the reality there was totally different. Like any rural fire department in the United States, we do our best to get by training with limited personnel and limited budgets.

The SJCFD consists of 14 fire districts that operate out of 23 stations, with a force of 350 volunteers and seven career members. It serves roughly 75,000 people and responds to approximately 7,200 calls a year; about 1,000 of those are fires (structure, brush, vehicle, and so on). Considering those numbers, I kept thinking about how we could better train the firefighters of this county.

I attended my first training session (firefighter 1) during my first weekend with the SJCFD at San Juan (NM) Community College, which had the only training tower in a 45-mile radius. Several other firefighters from surrounding San Juan County fire departments were also present to help administer these hands-on skills. The firefighters present had already completed a 150-question self-study exam, which they were given one year to complete. We formally trained students a total of 16 hours to prepare them for the world of firefighting. We continued with the test and skills that had been administered prior to my arrival, hoping that the firefighters were reading and retaining the material in the book issued to them during orientation.

In 2006, SJCFD Chiefs Larry Marcum and Doug Hatfield, several other volunteer fire officers, and I attended a weekend class in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sponsored by the Santa Fe County Fire Department. This excellent training session was taught through the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Volunteer and Combination Officers Section and opened my eyes to the idea of starting a rural area volunteer fire academy. I pitched the idea to Marcum, who gave his approval. We started planning immediately, and in the Fall of 2006 we opened the first San Juan County Fire Academy.

We began with small steps: 40 hours of firefighter training, 24 hours of EMS training, eight hours of wildfire training, and eight hours of hazardous materials training. In each of these training areas we certified the students in San Juan County and then conducted an International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) test through the New Mexico State Firefighters Academy for those students wanting to obtain an IFSAC credential. Some of our cadets choose not to take the IFSAC test and are content to simply have a certification from the SJCFD. There are still some that aspire to be paid firefighters elsewhere, and we wish them the best and try to give them every opportunity to meet those goals. This is a start for them and a lot of fire departments struggling with how to train firefighters in this rural setting.

We began the program by approaching and getting the approval from the Chief’s Association, which is comprised of every volunteer district chief in the county. In a volunteer setting, getting upper management’s support is essential; these people will eventually be working with your trainees. Next, we moved forward with the logistics of the program. We started meeting with volunteers interested in teaching at the new academy. We did not pay the instructors; they volunteered more time and effort above what they did in their own district. You may run into the same situation. There are always people in your organization who want to help—they just need to be asked. In the beginning, it was difficult to make firefighters understand that this training would be more beneficial to them than taking a self-study test.

Our first academy had 30 students. We graduated 20. It wasn’t readily apparent, but it seemed that some of the cadets dropped out because they realized that the volunteer fire department was a lot more hard work and dedication than they expected. Some of them left the ranks of the fire service altogether, realizing the time commitment needed. We had a few troublemakers, but that is common to every organization. We used the fire academy as a tool to try to help those troublemakers turn themselves around, to realize that they needed to follow fire service rules. Our new cadets started to understand the reality of firefighting and the work that it entailed. This is not a social club—this is a job. Just as any career firefighter goes to work, so do we.

Subsequent academy classes began to grow. We had 40 people in the next three classes. More and more firefighters became interested in instructing at the academy. To increase member interest, we scheduled training on Friday nights and Saturdays only; we train and instruct for 12 hours in that two-day span for six months. We require 24 hours of EMS, 16 hours of hazardous materials, 40 hours of wildfire, and 80 hours of firefighter 1. However, you can create your own schedule, one that works best for your district, but start off slowly. If you can take on the whole program immediately, then do it. If not, then bite off what you can chew and the rest will come. See Table 1 for a one-week sample of San Juan County’s most recent training schedule.

 

Another suggestion: Make the training mandatory. For San Juan County, training is mandatory because we have had an influx of volunteer candidates in the past two years, and this allows us to identify which students will make the best firefighters. Making training mandatory also eliminates firefighters’ complaints years later that they never received a firefighter I certification because they did not attend any training (other than what was offered on the occasional weeknight session). We give new firefighters one year to obtain basic training such as firefighter I, hazardous materials operations, S-130/190 wildfire training, or basic EMS, as set forth in department policy.

Mandatory training also creates bonds that will last throughout and beyond the fire academy. We have new firefighters working with each other from every district in the county, which creates a good multicompany atmosphere. If the training was not mandatory, we may not have reached the level of camaraderie and feeling of family that we have now.

When trying to make something mandatory in a volunteer fire department, you need the chief officers’ approvals. Then, when you bring that “mandatory” something to volunteer firefighters in the rural setting, you start to open a Pandora’s Box; some will resist for both rational and emotional reasons. Some will say, “I’m a volunteer. You can’t make me do this,” or “Why do I have to give up a whole Saturday to learn to put water on a fire?” These are just a couple of complaints that we hear at every academy and that I am sure you will hear at yours. Other emotional reasoning behind opposing a fire academy or mandatory training involves change. In our department, a few members are used to how things have been for the past 40 years and do not want to change. We are also starting to deal with a much younger group of new firefighters who range in age from 18 to 22 years and oppose the idea of authority; these are the same personality types that we all have to face every day in the fire service.

Remember that mandatory training will take away time from members’ jobs and families. Be conscious of these sacrifices that firefighters make to attend training. If you are looking into some type of formalized program, be flexible to an extent. Do this on a case-by-case basis. In our county, students take two or three of the basic training requirements and then attend the next fire academy to finish up whatever requirements they may have left; the only thing that the students will miss out on is the graduation ceremony. We only allow students that have completed all four of our basic requirements to graduate at the end of the academy. If a new firefighter constantly misses class for no good reason, get rid of him. If he cannot understand the importance of training, he should not be in our ranks and may get someone hurt. If you need people, then recruit and retain the good ones that you have.

Regarding training props, the ones that our county had were limited, which is always a concern for rural fire departments. How do we show people live fire when we do not have a multimillion-dollar burn facility? The more we thought about it, the more it seemed like we needed a lot of money to do what we wanted to do. In our first academy class, we purchased a 20-foot con-ex box (a shipping container from a train or semitruck) for only $1,800—this is not the millions needed to build a burn facility. If you do not have $1,800 dollars to spend, which is possible in these economic times, ask for a business to donate an old con-ex box.

The box allows us to set a fire in a controlled environment. Our cadets sit at the door, feel heat, and put some water on the fire. We practice direct and indirect attack and types of patterns. This was the highlight of the academy. All the cadets loved it. In the four years that we have conducted this drill, we have not had a single firefighter injury other than for some bumps and bruises. We have since upgraded to a 40-foot burn box and acquired another 40-foot box that we use to train in advancing a line. Forty feet is the perfect length for most rural departments that deal with manufactured or mobile homes daily.

What about safety and the life span of the box? We, like everyone else, comply with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. We follow a checklist before every burn and have medical staff on the training ground to ensure safety. We started with five instructors and are now up to 13; nine are IFSAC fire instructor I. Our instructors are in charge of ignition and safety inside the burn facility, monitoring temperatures and cadets to ensure that everyone goes home. They inspect the building for any structural damage prior to and after each burn, and a safety officer walks the outside of the building during each evolution to make sure that everything is in order.

A burn building is a tool that gets firefighters some of the training they need to be effective. Most rural departments believe that they do not have the budget to spend for all this training. However, we spent $7,000 on two 40-foot boxes, concrete for the burn box, and all the welding material to assemble the boxes in the desired layout. We now have a facility that any rural fire department in the nation can afford. (The box doesn’t have to be 40 feet. You can purchase a 20-foot box and still conduct quality live burns for your firefighters.) Rural fire departments don’t need $5 million to perform training; they need good instructors, good safety, good checklists, and a little bit of money.

Despite all the difficulties, the SJCFD is now headed into its 10th fire academy class and has at least 120 new volunteers each year. So what must you do to make things less difficult for your rural department to train? Involve your upper management; present the idea in a manner that they will approve and support. Also, it should not be hard to train your firefighters; they should want to train and make themselves better. Do not conduct the same training every training night.

Don’t sell yourself short. Do whatever is necessary to ensure their safe training. Money may be an issue, but you can get around that. We need our firefighters trained to a competent level.

CHRIS SHAY is a nine-year fire service veteran and a six-year captain in the state of New Mexico. He has been the training coordinator for San Juan County (NM) Fire Department for the past five years. He has a degree in fire science technology from New Mexico State University and is an IFSAC fire instructor and NFA incident safety officer.

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