Future firefighters get ready at new training ground
Doug Ramsay photo
Everett recruit firefighter Mark Bates tosses his self-contained breathing pack onto his back as he is timed for donning his full fire-resistant gear during an exercise at the
Snohomish County Fire Training Academy in South Everett on Wednesday, March 21.
EVERETT — The concrete lot was full of whines, beeps and whistles as firefighter trainees began day three of their immersion in Everett’s newest hero factory.
The 27 recruits, and seven recently promoted mentors going through training with them, were in for an intensive 14 weeks of classroom time, physical training and drills.
But before almost anything else at the Snohomish County Fire Training Academy, they had to learn how to breathe.
The high-pitched noises were “personal alert safety systems” on their air packs, which would signal with increasingly loud tones if their wearer was inactive, a lifesaving wail if one of them was incapacitated during a fire.
Properly hooking up and shouldering the packs was not a simple matter but Everett Fire Division Chief Matt Sorenson said learning to do so was a point of pride, and by training’s end, some recruits would manage the feat in 30 seconds.
One of those recruits was Chau Nguyen. The novice applicant was inspired firsthand. He recounted that while his mother was in hospice, firefighters were in all the time to help her. Nguyen signed up to help save other mothers.
“I’m just excited and honored” to be here, Nguyen said.
Dustin Todd was beginning the academy with two years of volunteer experience with the Spokane Fire Department. For him, joining the profession was a lifelong dream he said he was lucky to be living.
Nguyen and Todd are among Everett Fire’s five recruits in the program. Snohomish Fire is sending one.
The recruits’ 40-hour training weeks, with days starting at 6:30 a.m., are just one part of the process, Sorenson said. Trainees will spend significant additional time practicing skills and studying for exams on the path to certification.
Still, the location in Everett behind Mariner High School will afford the students some perks prior classes of trainees would envy. Students can typically go to sleep in their own bed each night and the 14 weeks is still speedier than the out of county option.
The Washington State Training Academy North Bend training facility, where prior recruits trained, must cater to a more diverse group of trainees from rural Eastern Washington to Bellingham. And it is so popular that it has sometimes had to turn departments away, Sorenson said.
Using local equipment and local protocols, Everett instructors can train more efficiently. That difference will shave up to six weeks off total training time before a graduate is ready to go into action.
“That’s a huge cost savings, and keeps the boots on the street where we need them,” Sorenson said.
The work is intrinsically dangerous: just opening up a structure provides oxygen that fuels a fire, Sorenson explained, but firefighters face new challenges, too. Today’s furniture, for example, often contains quick-burning synthetic materials including plastics. Lightweight construction materials offer benefits but don’t withstand fire like traditional materials, Sorenson said.
So firefighters take three courses just on the behavior of fire, studying the chemistry of fire and water, and more.
They learn in depth how to coordinate attacks in three-person teams, with one driver, one officer, and one new firefighter. Lessons and drills on breaking in and escaping flaming structures are a core component.
Another critical training is in maneuvering up to 200 feet of attack line through a variety of obstacles, a heavy job but one that relies not just on strength, but technique, Sorenson said.
That reliance on technique speaks to a philosophy important to Sorenson, a 20-plus year veteran firefighter. He said the department is not staffed with supermen of a certain type, but that all types of people are welcome regardless of size, shape, gender, color, sexual orientation or other factors.
Sorenson said the model for firefighting had changed over the past two decades, from a more heavily para-military model to one that would turn out firefighters who could problem solve and make themselves more useful more quickly.
He said while that past training would give new firefighters the equivalent of a high school degree, the Snohomish County Fire Academy offers the equivalent of a master’s degree.
The training yard contained unusual props, from wrecked cars to dismantled rooftops, and a stair tower. They are all essential training environments in preparation for the real thing, whether an explosion on the road, an industrial inferno or a Victorian-era house fire.
Captain Mike Bedard, one of the seven company officers, stood on the training ground with a unique appreciation.
He understood that having local recruits train together would create greater interoperability among the 10 participating departments.
The recruits will also have the opportunity for a rare camaraderie: the 34 men and women will form the region’s first graduating class of guardians.
The academy’s member agencies are: Arlington Fire Department, Everett Fire Department, Lake
Stevens Fire Department, Marysville Fire District, Mukilteo Fire Department, North County Fire & EMS, Snohomish County Fire District 4, Snohomish County Fire District 7, Snohomish County Fire District 19 and South County Fire.
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