Personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Anthony Petit test their skills at extinguishing a propane fire at a firefighting prop called the "rosebud.
The Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center in Juneau trains over 3,000 people per year.
Story last updated at 4/29/2009 - 10:44 am
JUNEAU - There are a lot of things firefighters must learn before they can act safely and effectively on the scene of an emergency situation. If the fire is in a building, they must know the type of structure to determine how it will burn and if it may collapse. On a ship, a certain set of procedures apply, and different techniques are used for wild land fires. For certain types of petroleum, chemical and electrical fires, firefighters must know the specific techniques to extinguish and not feed the flames.
For firefighters in Southeast, many of these skills are learned at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Center. More firefighting training takes place in this facility than any other in the state.
The training facility is located on a five acre plot on Sherwood Lane in the Mendenhall Valley. The building is large and was white originally, but now shows the wear and tear of repeated usage. Inside is a classroom area, an equipment cache and several floors of rooms where trainees can practice firefighting skills in a controlled environment, including a simulated ship engine room and elevator shaft. There are also outdoor areas to practice skills like vehicle extraction, airport rescue, various classes of fires, hose handling and other scenarios that relate to firefighting.
The facility was originally built by the State of Alaska in 1978. State workers operated the complex for about ten years and then turned it over to the Municipality of Juneau, which still owns the facility.
The center receives about 3,000 trainees per year, including regional career and volunteer firefighters as well as Coast Guard personnel, crew members of cruise ships, firefighters from area mines, Boy Scouts, local businesses and employees of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The state Fire Training Specialist, Todd Kollar, maintains a cadre of highly trained instructors. He customizes each training course to meet the needs of any group that seeks instruction.
The center trains engine room crews and above-deck crews to respond to shipboard fires, which require very different treatment than most on-land structural fires. David Bruce, safety officer and long-time volunteer firefighter, said they sometimes experience some language barriers with crew members but that fire is a universal tongue and everyone picks up firefighting techniques quickly.
"The cruise line companies realize how important it is to be able to respond effectively to an incident, especially at sea," Bruce said. "We are truly an international fire training center. The cruise lines tell us they recruit from approximately 73 different nations around the world and send these employees to us for training. Many tell us after the training they would like to become firefighters in their own country."
On the top floor of the facility is a room known to trainees as "the maze." The room itself is only about 15 feet long and 25 feet wide and it is filled with a claustrophobic's worst nightmare: a 60-foot-long narrow, twisting tunnel constructed out of plywood. One of the skills tests that advanced firefighters have to pass is to make it through the maze while suited up in all their gear, including their bulky helmet and air tank. And they have to do it in complete darkness, usually along with a couple other team members. The idea behind the maze is to practice self-rescue, teamwork and self- confidence, Bruce said.
Richard Etheridge, division chief of operations for Capital City Fire/Rescue, said the technology for fighting fires is constantly changing and therefore the job requires constant training.
"The good old days of just having a strong back ... are kind of disappearing," Etheridge said. "Firefighting has been slow to progress due to a lot of tradition, but people are starting to get creative. We're finding more and more firefighters with college educations."
There are a number of universities across the country offering degrees in varying levels of fire management. The University of Alaska Fairbanks offers a two-year associate of fire science degree at its Tanana Valley Campus. Alaskan firefighters are often sent to the U.S. National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. to complete highly specialized courses that aren't offered in state.
While it may be helpful, a degree isn't required to fight fires. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter can simply walk into a fire station and apply. After passing a background check, they will be assigned to a station and begin training.
The first training program that volunteers go through is called Brown Tag. It is an abbreviated training program that teaches volunteers how to safely operate around a fire scene and assist career firefighters from outside the building. After going through Brown Tag, volunteers can go on to the Firefighter 1 program which teaches trainees more in-depth techniques such as safely entering a burning structure and what to do once they're inside.
A firefighter of any skill level can always continue with more training, but the biggest priority is having the commitment to doing it, Etheridge said.
John Adams was a volunteer firefighter for four and a half years before he committed to making it his career. He now has eight years of fighting fires under his belt. Last month, he completed a Firefighter 2 class at the training center.
"This is an opportunity for me to take more of a leadership role instead of being just a member of a team," Adams said. "It's a great way of improving my job knowledge and my job skill, taking it to another level."
Adams said that as a career firefighter, there are sometimes days when his station receives no emergency calls. During down times, firefighters continue their training so they may be as knowledgeable as possible about every potential situation that they may respond to. A firefighter's job description changes with every emergency call. It may even include delivering a child, which Adams said was one of his favorite moments on the job.
Firefighting is one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S., but firefighters say it is also one of the most satisfying. Bruce said he has yet to meet a firefighter who doesn't have a strong desire to give something back to his or her community.
"Firefighters are the best people I've ever met," Bruce said.