CES recruits prove they can take the heat

Trial by fire

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006


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  Ellie Plate, right, receives a hug after accepting her CES badge at the graduation ceremony. She said she is looking forward to working at the department. Photo by M. Scott Moon

A Central Emergency Services firefighter recruit extinguishes flames in a training unit during a live-fire exercise at a training academy at CES's Mackey Lake station last month. Eight students graduated from the firefighting course last week along with a group of new EMS volunteers.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Bake, broil, cook, melt, roast, scorch, swelter, toast, incinerate, combust — none were desirable, but all were possible as the beast emitted another hellish belch of flames.

Palpable waves of heat could be felt through the protective gear worn by the small group charged with the task of stopping its advancement.

The odds seemed against them.

They were already down on their knees, and flames — with temperatures of 600, 700, even up to 800 degrees — licked along the ceiling over their heads.


Student recruit Jason Smith and CES Lt. Dave Bunts run with gear while changing from a training exercise to a real call last month.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The space in which they were forced to fight was small and didn’t allow much mobility. Adding to the dilemma was the lack of visibility from the thick cloak of smoke that banked down from the ceiling.

While not a scaly, serpentine dragon from days of old, the beast these men and women fought was very much alive. It moved and breathed and consumed everything in its path.

The beast: a big, bright, blazing fire.

Those battling it: firefighters.


Brandon Stromberg, Zach Byford and Levi Doss listen to an instructor during a classroom training session. The mural behind them reads "Bravery, Honesty, Dillegence."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Well, sort of. During this fight in late October they were trainees, until after Nov. 14 when Central Emergency Services in Soldotna graduated the next class of firefighters from its Fire Recruitment Academy that began Aug. 21.

“We started out with 16, eight are left and I’m expecting all eight to graduate,” said John Evans, a senior instructor at the academy.

Those who left did so for a variety of reasons, he said. Some couldn’t meet the academic requirements, while others couldn’t keep up with the rigorous physical demands. Still others found the mental aspects — dealing with the fear and claustrophobia of being inside a burning building — were more than they wanted to deal with to earn a paycheck.


Central Emergency Services firefighter Oscar Mills adjusts a vent to control heat inside a storage container where recruits in the department's firefighting academy were working. Temperatures in the unit ranged from 300 degrees on the floor to more than 800 degrees at the ceiling.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“The attrition rate is high. As instructors, we hit them hard for the first part of the academy, but we push hard to lesson the anxiety in a real catastrophe,” Evans said.

“A real incident isn’t the time to find out people panic,” said Gordon Orth, assistant fire chief at CES.

Recruits go through weeks of classes dealing with nearly every aspect of fire and how to control it before beginning training drills. Then recruits start out with blacked-out face masks in normal air and gradually progress to more difficult situations, Orth said.


Recruits remove a dummy from a burning container during a live-fire rescue exercise as a trainer watches.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“We’ve got smoke generators that make a thick, nonvisible smoke in the room, but it’s nontoxic if they panic and pull their mask off,” Orth said.

These drills eventually culminate in live-fire training sessions, roughly eight-10 a year, where recruits are really put to the test.

These exercises demonstrate all the recruits have learned, demand they face any fears they have and require them to face the beast — the real beast, not some smoky simulation.

“They’re in with real fire, real smoke,” Evans said.


Smoke billows from converted shipping containers the department uses to train firefighters at its Mackey Lake station.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Using just matches, cardboard and wooden pallets as a fuel source — no petroleum products — a fire is constructed in an area of the training facility referred to as “the burn chamber.”

This live-fire test is not conducted haphazardly, since structure fires — whether real or simulated — can create safety concerns for firefighters. Floors can give out, stairs fall through, chimneys fall down and ceilings collapse in a fires. Limited entry and exit paths can also pose dangers.

CES has found a solution in the form of shipping containers — 40-by-20-foot steel containers that look like something a semitruck should be hauling.


Lt. John Landess grimaces as Lt. Keith Hamilton helps him with his tie before a graduation ceremony for the new firefighter recruits earlier this month. A group of emergency medical workers was also welcomed into the department during the ceremony. Chief Chris Mokracek said the department was proud of the effort the group had put into becoming the peninsula's newest firefighters and EMS workers.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Off Mackey Lake Road, CES has arranged and stacked five of these containers to form one structure that simulates a two story, multiple-room house. Multiple points of exit and entry, as well as points for ventilation, have been cut in the containers for safety and variety in training.

“It’s an extremely useful training tool,” said Chris Mokracek, Fire Chief at CES, in regard to the training facility.

“It’s definitely safer,” Mokracek said, particularly when contrasted to the old way of training that utilized controlled burns in structures that were slated for demolition.

“We can control it much better now, we can use it over and over and we can design different scenarios for a wider opportunity of experiences,” he said.


Ellie Plate, right, receives a hug after accepting her CES badge at the graduation ceremony. She said she is looking forward to working at the department.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The inside of the shipping containers have been furnished with a variety of structures and items that would be encountered in a normal home, such as couches and coffee tables.

“We also throw in a few obstacles they might encounter,” Orth said.

This is done because firefighters never know what they’ll find in the living room of an Alaskan resident. Anything from a motorcycle to a 250-pound air compressor would not be uncommon. As such, the obstacles used for training are equally abstract.

“We have two 20-foot tunnels wired like a web they have to crawl through at least 10 times during the course of their training,” Evans said.


Recruits bow their heads in prayer during the graduation ceremony.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“They learn how to breach walls by kicking a hole through the sheet rock and knocking a stud loose, then get through the hole safely with their airpack on,” Orth said.

“We want them to learn to be resourceful and think their way through tight spots and get out safely, so they all go home after a call,” Evans said.

In addition to the self-rescue tactics learned, recruits also learn search and rescue techniques since, for firefighters, protecting life is as important as confining and extinguishing a fire.

“They’ll have mannequin victims that they’ll have to find and drag out,” Evans said.

Running these drills in real smoke, heat and fire gets the recruits used to sights and sounds they could encounter on a real emergency call, according to Orth.

He explained this is invaluable training since effective firefighting involves the careful, complex coordination of personnel and equipment.

“This training develops their confidence in the equipment, but also develops their confidence in themselves and in working as a team,” Orth said.

This doesn’t happen overnight, as the recruits are the first to admit.

“In the beginning we fumbled around and were awkward in the gear,” said recruit Brandon Stromberg.

Just putting on his full bunker gear — which firefighters are required to be able to do in under a minute — used to take the recruits great lengths of time.

After weeks of training, Stromberg and the other recruits now move like a well-oiled machine, he said.

“I’m the slowest in the group and I can get my gear on in under 40 seconds,” Stromberg said.

The careful tutelage of the instructors also shaped their skills as firefighters, he said.

“The instructors are right there with you, giving you advice the whole time, but also letting you go a bit so you can learn on your own too,” Stromberg said.

As an example, Stromberg cited an incident in which he used the wrong stream size the first time he manned the water hose.

“They let me go a bit so I could see and feel what effect it had on the fire. It was a great way to learn not to do it again,” he said.

Recruit Zac Byford said this is another positive aspect of the live-fire training.

“You really learn how to use and to trust your equipment,” he said.

Recruit Nate Nelson shared similar sentiments.

“It has definitely made us better firefighters,” Nelson said.

“It seems like it would be a disservice to not have this training and send us out there,” he added.

“Now we know exactly what we’re doing. It’s instinctual, which is what you want under pressure,” Stromberg said.

Recruit Ellie Plate said the live fires have coalesced her and the other recruits into a functional team.

“It’s a family feeling, more than when you just take classes at the college, and you have to develop these feelings because you’re trusting these people with your life. I’ve never felt teamwork like that before,” she said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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