Training days: Learning the basics

Future firefighters go through drills before entering Fire Academy
By Marie Haaland | Aug 18, 2017
Photo by: Marie Haaland Firefighter-in-training Chaz Leppert makes his way through obstacles in the synthetic smoke.

When he was 12 years old, Travis Seals’ house burned down. His family survived, but they lost everything.

“That sucked,” he said recently, “but it was the best thing to ever happen to me, because at 12 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for my career.”

Seals is now one of nine firefighters-in-training, more than halfway done with a four-week training program taking place at Snohomish County Fire District 1’s Training Center in Everett.

Fire District 1 serves Edmonds through a contract recently renewed for five years.

Four of the firefighter trainees are from the Lynnwood Fire Department and five are with District 1, including Seals. The two departments will be merged into South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue as of Oct. 1, but they already have a shared administrative staff and train together.

“These nine are brand new, never been in the fire service,” said John Puetz, an acting battalion chief-in-training with the Lynnwood Fire Department.

New hires go to the Training Center for a week, where they learn some basics before going to a 12-week program at the Fire Academy in North Bend. While at the Fire Academy, they earn three state certifications, for Firefighter 1, Firefighter 2 and Hazmat Operations.

This group of nine started at the Training Center in May, went to North Bend for 12 weeks and returned at the end of July to complete the four-week program.

“We have four weeks to go over specific stuff to our department,” Puetz said. “We have tools that are different and the hose is differently laid out, and we fine tune it to what we have as far as equipment, supplies, personnel, things like that. It’s not quite basic anymore, it’s more advanced stuff that we do on the job.”

This is the third and final group of trainees for 2017. There isn’t a set number of groups per year, as that depends on the number of firefighters retiring.

“We anticipate hiring anywhere from 20 to 30 a year for the next five years because we have a lot of people who are ready to retire,” Puetz said.

This group of trainees happens to be all men, but women trained in groups earlier this year. The average age of entry-level hires is about 25. Lateral hires, meaning people who have worked in other fire departments, are usually in their mid-30s.

Once hired, new firefighters have a year of probation. During this first year, they are tested once every three months at the Training Center to make sure they are retaining what they’ve learned. Crews also work with the new hires to expand their learning while on the job.

Training is split into a morning and an afternoon session, each four hours long. This Friday, Aug. 11 – the end of their second week – the trainees spent the day learning what to do as part of the Rapid Intervention Crew (RIC), focusing on self-survival and saving trapped firefighters.

“A team is designated for RIC, and their whole purpose is to be ready in case a firefighter needs to be rescued,” said Leslie Hynes, public information officer for Fire District 1. “Each engine is marked with RIC, and it contains all the things they need to set up for that.”

In Puetz’s 18 years as a firefighter, he has only been on-scene once when RIC was needed to help a firefighter. Firefighters work to make sure they won’t be in a situation where they need to be rescued, but the RIC training is still vitally important.

“We learn from others who have had that unfortunate thing happen, and we try to avoid that the best we can,” Puetz said.

In the morning session, they used synthetic smoke and sent groups of trainees into the building. The lights were turned off, leaving the firefighters with only their flashlights to see in the hazy darkness.

Seals went through the course with Chaz Leppert, one of the Lynnwood trainees. The pair was the first to go through the course, and had several instructors watching their progress.

“Once we got in there, they simulated a structural collapse,” Seals said. “They had stuff caved in and the way we came in was blocked; we couldn’t get out that way anymore. We had to communicate to our command, our supervisor, that we were going to need help and we were trying to get ourselves out a different way.”

There were various obstacles in their way, in an attempt to replicate a building with a collapsed ceiling.

“We had to fit through very, very small tunnels and little boxes to find a way out, a bunch of entanglements – downed wires,” he said. “Sometimes we had to take our pack all the way off to fit through these small holes.”

Leppert was assigned as the lead, which meant he would fight through the obstacles first and help direct Seals. The trainees have to work quickly to find their way through because their packs hold only 45 minutes of air. When firefighters are working hard and breathing more quickly, the pack only lasts about 25 to 30 minutes.

“Try not to panic – that’s your biggest concern,” Leppert said. “It’s pretty strenuous to get through small spaces; you start breathing your air a lot faster. You can’t hesitate. You just have to make a decision and go with it.”

Leppert was in school to become a physician’s assistant, but decided to switch paths and become a firefighter after going on ride-alongs with five different fire departments.

“I always wanted to be a part of the medical field and help people, and so it just kind of took me this direction and it’s been awesome,” Leppert said. “I love training, I love working hard – I love sweating – it’s just been awesome. I just can’t get enough of it.”

To learn more about firefighting training, go to www.firedistrict1.org/divisions/training.

 

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