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Putting skills to the test

Recruits at Spokane Valley Fire Academy taught to work together

There wasn’t a textbook in sight on a recent day of teaching at the Spokane Valley Fire Academy. Instead students suited up in firefighting gear with air masks to learn how fire behaves.

Black smoke billowed from the four-story training tower on Sullivan Road near the Spokane Business and Industrial Park as new recruits took turns hauling heavy hoses inside the tower to put out flames. Other students climbed up a ladder on the outside of the tower to practice tying off a ladder. It is policy that one person holds a ladder in place while another secures it to prevent it from slipping, said Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Clifford.

The group of recruits in this fire academy is a mix of five Spokane Valley Fire Department recruits and 16 recruits from Spokane Fire Department. All had to pass a written test and a physical ability test to get this far, plus they had earned their emergency medical technician certification. Passing the written test is no easy task.

“A lot of people are just lucky enough to pass the test,” Clifford said. “It’s not that common that someone will take that test for the first time and pass it.”

The written test covered everything from math to grammar to map reading, said Spokane Valley Fire recruit Jesse McCabe. McCabe is currently enrolled in the Spokane Community College fire science program and plans to finish his last two quarters even though he has landed the job he wanted. “I want to continue my education,” he said.

Only a few of the new recruits have taken the SCC program, said training officer Capt. Mike Charter. “It’s good if someone comes in with experience,” Charter said. “We kind of have to look at it as if everyone is at square one so everyone is on the same page.”

Everyone the department hires has to go through the 11-week academy, even if they have prior experience at other departments as several of the new recruits do. Even Clifford, who was the chief of the Millwood Fire Department before being hired at Spokane Valley Fire, had to complete the program. “All departments train a little bit differently,” Clifford said. “We want them to be trained in the way we operate.”

The recruits spend a day in the classroom learning about each aspect of their new career before they spend the next day doing hands-on learning. “We follow the walk, crawl, run approach,” Charter said. “We build up the skills they need individually, then we start putting them together (in teams).”

Charter uses a nationally recognized fire curriculum that covers everything from safety to how to use a variety of equipment. “There are a lot of things mandated by the state that they have to have before they go into their first live fire,” Charter said.

Their recent training on fire behavior was the first fire experience for some of the recruits. McCabe, who had previously volunteered with Fire Districts 9 and 10, enjoyed the experience. “I like it,” he said. “To be honest, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this stuff.”

Now more than halfway through the academy, Charter said the recruits are really starting to work well together as a team. “Now is the time when it’s starting to click for them,” he said. “It’s kind of neat seeing that.”

After the new recruits graduate, they’ll spend a little bit of time at each station in the department, learning their way around town while simultaneously being evaluated. “They’re not assigned permanently for a couple years,” Clifford said.

Despite his prior experience and training, McCabe doesn’t expect to know everything there is to know once he completes the training academy. “Hopefully I’ll know enough not to get myself killed out there,” he said. “There’s always something to learn.”