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Firefighters in training

Thu., March 29, 2007

Amid the growl and blue smoke of a running chain saw, firefighter trainees Kevin Helt and Shawn Heath scaled a slick plywood roof, stomping out the surface before them with a fireman’s ax.

They were decked out in fire gear, thick rubber boots, heavy pants and coats designed to keep them from baking like potatoes in a burning building. The helmets ratcheted to their heads weighed against their necks as they worked their way up a ladder pitched flat against the plywood. They wore breathing masks and oxygen bottles strapped to their backs that quickly were running out of air.

A firefighter knows his air supply has reached its end when his lungs strain to expand and can’t. Nineteen trainees at Spokane Valley Fire District’s 10-week training session are learning what the sensation is like as part of the biggest recruiting class in recent memory.

“You know you’re out of air when your mask sucks to your face,” Heath said. “It takes some getting used to.”

On the roof with Helt on the district’s practice ground, Heath handed the chain saw up to his partner. Helt handed the ax to Heath, who then drove the sharp tip on the back end of the instrument into the plywood.

Then Heath gave the ax a 90-degree twist, turning it into a ledge on which Helt could stand while he cut a windshield-sized vent hole in the roof.

The number of people waiting for such an opportunity is in the hundreds.

Rarely do so many positions open simultaneously at a fire district. Assistant Fire Chief Larry Rider said this class of 19 firefighters is the largest in his 27 years.

Roughly half of the positions are tied to a $37 million operations levy approved by voters in March 2006. The rest of the trainees are expected to replace firefighters who have retired or have been called to reserve military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The district plans to roll out its new recruits May 21, along with five new firetrucks also paid for through the levy, the costs of which are being spread over three years.

Nine of the positions are tied to the deployment of the five new trucks.

At the same time the trainees become active, Spokane Valley Fire District also will give its advanced life-support services a shot in the arm by adding two paramedic engine companies.

At least three of the district’s 10 fire stations now have paramedic engines at all times. That doesn’t mean stations without paramedic vehicles don’t respond to medical emergencies, but when they go out on call, they’re more likely to arrive in a vehicle designed for firefighting, making the vehicle unavailable should a fire occur.

The application line for firefighting jobs is long. Since 2004, the Spokane Valley Fire District has filled 34 positions, for which it had received more than 800 applications.

“It’s a profession and it pays well,” said Rider, who has seen recruits apply for training multiple times before finding a slot.

Starting pay is $44,784 a year, with pension and full benefits.

But it’s a tough job with oddball hours. Firefighters work a straight 24-hour shift, during which they’re deployed at the crackle of static on the dispatcher’s radio. Then they’re off for two days and back for another 24-hour shift. Still, few people leave firefighting once they’ve made it on a crew.

At a time when the average American not only changes jobs every 12 years but also changes careers three times, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, firefighting is an incredibly stable profession.

“I suppose in 27 years, I’ve seen four who left the department,” Rider said. “And some of those went to other departments.”

Other fire departments have filled fewer spots or none at all. In the same time that the Spokane Valley Fire District has opened a fire station, hired 34 new firefighters and added equipment, the Spokane Fire Department has cut more than 50 jobs, resulting in 29 layoffs as the Spokane City Council looked for ways to keep the city’s overall budget in check.

The last time the Spokane Fire Department hired anyone was a few years ago when it recruited a handful of firefighter paramedics, said Brian Schaeffer, assistant Spokane fire chief. Because of seniority rules regarding department cuts, those recruits also were the first to be let go, he said.

A few members of the Spokane Valley Fire District’s current recruiting class said hiring on with a fire district is a much better opportunity than hiring on with a municipal fire department like Spokane’s because the fire district has a dedicated source of funding independent from city budget problems.

But job security was taking a back seat to job safety as the recruits worked through training basics. The message driven home again and again by instructors such as Matt Jorgensen was to be thinking about their next move every minute they’re on the job.

With a half dozen “newbies” circled around him, Jorgensen took something as deceptively simple as getting in and out of a firetruck’s back seat and turned it into a half-hour lecture.

So many things can go wrong if you’re not thinking ahead, Jorgensen said. Know where everything is on the truck – every flashlight, every hose, every piece of hardware – because there’s no time to fumble when an emergency awaits.

Don’t assume you can fly by the seat of your pants. In the frantic seconds of a truck’s arrival at an emergency, firefighters can forget to strap on their oxygen correctly or forget to remove their communication headphones before leaving the truck and be reeled back into the vehicle like a cutthroat trout by their still-connected audio cords.

Jorgensen recounted how an experienced firefighter recently was nearly killed while responding to a roadside accident when the driver of a car going by lost control and slammed into a firetruck right below the door the man was about to exit.

Don’t forget to look before you jump out of the truck, Jorgensen said. It’s dangerous out there.


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