Delivering a Wildland Fire Training Program to a Structural Fire Department

Article and photos by Kevin Nunn

Two years ago, the National Fire Academy (NFA) began hosting Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (S-190) and Wildland Firefighter Training (S-130) in a computer-driven, online format through www.nfaonline.dhs.gov. In partnership with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) and the National Association of State Foresters, these NFA courses allow structural fire departments to obtain the training necessary for safe operations in the wildland-urban interface. If your department responds to any type of vegetation fires, the safety of your firefighters may depend on this education. These courses are free and are specifically designed so that structural fire departments with limited resources can take advantage of these opportunities.   

As a structural firefighter and the wildland coordinator for the Pigeon Forge Fire Department in East Tennessee, I began investigating the process for getting firefighters trained using this educational tool. Our department has a significant amount of wildland-urban interface, which demands that our firefighters develop skills consistent with structural firefighting and wildland fire suppression. Even with the obvious need, it has taken almost a year of planning, coordination, and focused efforts to get this system in place. It is not as easy as just having firefighters sit down at a computer and start taking classes. It may take time for your department to gather enough resources, momentum, and awareness to accept this training challenge.
 
As firefighters within our department took these classes, they developed some information, which may help other fire departments engage in this type of training. Here are some tips that might help your organization plan, prepare, and deliver a successful wildland fire training program.   

Commitment

Ready, Set, Go!

The Pigeon Forge Fire Department protects a significant amount of wildland/urban interface with thousands of rental cabins spread throughout the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Up until our department became a pilot program department for the International Association of Fire Chief’s Ready, Set, Go! program, our firefighters were minimally involved with wildland firefighter training. To educate the public about wildland fire, we felt it would be best if all firefighters were trained in wildland firefighting. These online classes have provided the perfect avenue for that training.

 
The Pigeon Forge Fire Department Web site, www.cityofpigeonforge.com, directs residents and visitors to Ready, Set, Go! with materials in print and video formats. We have made presentations to community civic organizations. Public service announcements are played on the local cable-access station, and our local newspaper has become very familiar with the mission of Ready, Set, Go!
Providing the time to train necessitates a commitment from the command staff. Our department’s final commitment came when our chief attended the Wildland/Urban Interface International Association of Fire Chief’s Conference in Reno, Nevada, in April 2010. There, he listened to a speech from Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Chief Michael Freeman, who provided details about The Station Fire, a wildfire that killed two structural firefighters. After hearing about this incident, our chief vowed that, for their safety, Pigeon Forge firefighters would be trained in wildland firefighting tactics.
 
At the same time, firefighters must also commit to the courses. These online classes are not easy. They are equivalent to attending a 40-hour instructional lecture. Firefighters will be proud to achieve the certificates offered within each module. We have been keeping track of everyone’s progress on a roster; firefighters keep tabs on each other. Even our volunteers are required to take the training; when some of them finished ahead of the career firefighters, healthy competition started.
 
Although we made it mandatory for all firefighters to obtain wildland firefighting education online, it was not mandatory for all firefighters to obtain their Red Card. Acquiring the wildland fire knowledge through the online system is for their safety on the fireline while performing suppression or structural protection. A Red Card is only required if a firefighter wants to continue wildland fire education and training within the state or federal system on an assignment (separate from the fire department). A number of our firefighters have committed to performing the pack test regardless of whether they ever go out on an assignment. 

Registration

These courses take some preparation. A firefighter must enroll with the NFA, and the system must populate all the courses available to them within their account. This process takes at least one hour; we set aside one training session to get everyone registered. The system e-mails to the students a user I.D. and a password. It is important to use a proper e-mail address when registering.  

Time

Preplanning, flowing hydrants, administrative duties, fitness, and public relations may have to be put on hold for a given amount of time each day if firefighters are to learn this information while on duty. In our case, this took the place of regular shift training. On average, our firefighters spent two to three hours per session and finished in 15 shifts. The course, if taught by an instructor, takes 40 hours of lecture, and the online courses were designed to mirror a direct-delivery class. Because this course must be self-directed, some firefighters progress at different speeds, depending on their comfort with a computer. Once they have mastered one or two modules, they usually get the hang of the system and move faster; however, it has still taken our fastest firefighters approximately 32 hours. 

Schedule

Obviously, if your firefighters are performing this training on shift, they will still respond to calls. Other than that, everything can be scheduled. Our department is relatively new, so our training officer has an aggressive training schedule. In the past 12 months, we have received training in technical rope rescue, confined space, arson investigation, and hazardous materials technician, which meant that I needed to coordinate any type of training with the training officer. Keep in mind that this training is best delivered during your slower times, i.e., not fire season. Tennessee’s fire season starts in October and continues until May. Our wildland fires are minimal during the summer; however, we run the majority of our calls throughout the summer because we are in a tourist town. Scheduling training during the busiest month of our year was aggressive, but the firefighters overcame the challenge by getting to the computers early in the morning.  

Coordination and Testing

It is important to have a coordinator who tests the system and understands how to guide firefighters through the NFA registration process, the course materials, and communicate with all agencies involved. This can be a department’s training officer or another designated firefighter, but someone should be chosen to go through the training before the other members. Testing the material also includes using one or two firefighters take the entire course under real circumstances at the fire station or at their home. This can help the coordinator identify any problems that might be present within a specific fire department and situation.

(1) Pigeon Forge firefighters complete the field training portion of the program. 

Coordination and testing are important because final certifications within this program are delivered only through your local NWCG partner. The final exercise in this online training program is a practical field exercise conducted by the department’s local NWCG partner. After the field exercise, nationally-recognized certifications are delivered through the agency. We have two local partners: The Tennessee Division of Forestry and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our State Forestry Office administered the field exercise; the National Park administered the pack test for firefighters wishing to pursue the Red Card. All of this took coordination, communication, and, above all, the focused efforts of one coordinator. 

(2) Pigeon Forge firefighters make use of the local library to complete the online training module.

Resources and Help

This training may necessitate that your department develop other resources not commonly used within the fire service. Our department did not have enough computers to accommodate the number of firefighters per shift; however, the library in our city was well-equipped to make available the quantity of computers and the technology demands the NFA required. Reserving six computers every day for six weeks was not easy; however, the library staff accommodated each shift’s schedule. This, once again, emphasizes the importance of having a coordinator for this process. Without the assistance of our city’s library, this project would not have been possible.
 
The NFA provides a help desk available on a firefighter’s schedule – 24/7. It makes help available through e-mail and phone support, depending on the firefighters’ needs. Even though this program has been available for two years, the system is not perfect. The NFA welcomes positive, detailed, and constructive feedback related to these courses because they are unique to the NFA system. The complexity of the course has resulted in the NFA’s modifying the system; more upgrades are scheduled  
 
Feedback

Many NFA online courses are available; the S-130/S-190 series is just one. For the safety of firefighting personnel, the basic NFA wildland courses should be used by all structural fire departments that respond to wildland fires. Our firefighters were apprehensive at first, but as the system became more familiar to them, many were looking at other available courses. After completing the coursework, Scott Large, a volunteer firefighter with the Pigeon Forge stated, “I got a lot more out of this course than if I had been required to read a book.” His sentiments were echoed by many as they finished their training. Ultimately, our department has become stronger and is more prepared to fight wildland/urban interface fires. 

Kevin Roy Nunn began his wildland fire career in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a structural firefighter in the Pigeon Forge (TN) Fire Department, which is immediately adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since there is a significant amount of wildland/urban interface in the district, he strives to integrate local, state, and federal resources.  

 
 

No posts to display