Another crop of rookies begin firefighter training
By Nancy Angellotti
MAYFIELD TWP. — It’s Monday evening, a little after six. In this year’s class, 30 rookie firefighters, ranging in age from 19 to 56, flock into the Lapeer County Fireman’s Training Center. This night, they will be learning about extrication tools from instructor Brent Connell. An instructor for 12 years, he promises with a smile, “We’ll make this easy, trust me.”
The rookie year for a Lapeer County firefighter is an arduous one. It demands dedication, commitment and stamina. Department standards vary, but one must pass challenges to even be considered for a spot. For example, a candidate may need to pass a written test, a challenging physical agility test, an oral interview and a medical exam. Once accepted, the probationary firefighter faces a year of training, both on the job and in the classroom.
All of the rookies in the county train at least 256 hours of official class time from October through May. The program is administered by the Lapeer County Fire Association and uses a nationwide, approved curriculum (IFSTA), mandated by the state. Blaine Howell is the lead instructor in Lapeer County. Howell says, “We do more than what the state requires, pertinent to making better firefighters.”
All Lapeer County firefighters complete Firefighter I and II courses. Class time involves lecture, review, and testing of the text material they’ve been studying, in addition to practical hands-on training, which can often be physically demanding. Practical training includes climbing ladders, handling hose under pressure, search and rescue, tying knots, learning to wear an air pack or safely hauling heavy loads via ladders or ropes.
After turning in their homework, the rookies must pass a number of tests. Then, at the end of the class year, they must pass a 200-question written final, as well as a 12-station practical test.
The hardest part of the training for rookies is “learning to trust themselves and learning to trust each other,” says George Scrimger, former lead instructor who assists Howell. “Team-building is an important part of training.”
The program draws instructors from departments all over the county. They need at least three years fire service and must pass an Education Methodology class before being certified to instruct. This year’s probationary class will have the benefit of 20 experienced instructors to help with their training. “For every class that you teach, there’s five to seven hours of prep time,” says Howell.
The training center has developed over the years into a well-equipped facility. It includes a classroom, a three-story training tower, an apparatus bay, a ventilation roof, a pond used for drafting water and a newly acquired burn simulator. A confined space course also is planned.
During the first year, rookies also are on-call, going on runs whenever the call goes out. They come face-to-face for the first time with intense fire and accident situations. On scene, they are under the watchful guidance of the experienced firefighters. The rookies’ tasks are limited, to keep them safe, but they are still exposed to the firefighting experience.
The first year also has a huge impact on family life. With so much time spent on training, and the intense focus it requires, families must adjust. They learn to deal with interruptions at any time for emergencies and to accept that their beloved firefighter will be exposed to difficult situations.
All of the firefighters in the county have been through the rookie year experience. With the exception of three full-time firefighters, the firefighters are paid on call. Most firefighters do this work on top of their regular jobs.
With the huge commitment of time and effort, as well as the personal risks involved, it takes a special kind of person to become a firefighter, says Scrimger. “And they come from every walk of life.”
Howell adds that good firefighters are “open-minded and willing to learn. They must not be afraid to take on a challenge. It’s a big commitment.”