Friday, March 17, 2006
Carlisle firefighters shine at graduation ceremony
Last Thursday, the Carlisle Fire Department celebrated the graduation of four of its team members who completed the extensive and arduous six-month Firefighting I/II course and exam at Massachusetts Fire Academy: Captain J.J. Supple, Matt Svatek, Bryan Sorrows and Erik Moseley. Starting last September, these firefighters spent as many as three nights a week, including weekends, in the classroom and field working toward the state and national certification that qualifies them to work as career firefighters in New England.
The firefighting course focuses on structural firefighting tactics:
fire behavior, strategic firefighting, dry runs in the field, smoke,
search and rescue, ladders and ventilation. A recent graduate and eight-year
resident of Carlisle, Bryan Sorrows has spent six of those eight years
with the Fire Department. Speaking about the drills that the candidates
had to master during the training program, Sorrows talked about the
"pitch black three-story maze" that they had to find their
way out of. "The skills are physically demanding. The Fire Academy
holds everyone to a very high standard."
Teams from all over Massachusetts made up the class with 52 candidates
first enrolling. In the class with the Carlisle team were firefighters
from neighboring towns such as Lincoln, Harvard, Northborough and Southborough.
By exam time, however, 52 candidates had dropped to 39.
Carlisle firefighter and recent graduate Matt Svatek, who is a relatively new member of the department having served about a year with the team, commented that the Carlisle firefighters were at the top of the class in terms of their fire training. "The training department that Carlisle has is comprehensive." According to Chief Flannery, Carlisle firefighters are thoroughly trained to handle emergency events in Carlisle, which means that in addition to learning basic theory and tactics of general firefighting, Carlisle firefighters are experts at moving water by accessing cisterns and drafting water, for example. Captain JJ Supple, a 12-year veteran of the Fire Department, said that firefighters' "brains must be hard-wired to their hands. [In some scenarios] we have to go to a static water source and suck the water out. We might have to lay pipes for a mile for the water to reach the site."
The Carlisle Fire Department is a volunteer or "call" department where volunteer firefighters, who are scheduled to be "on-call," respond to emergencies. When firefighters are home and available, they call into the department and are put on the schedule. The call schedule is organized into "companies:" Company 1 is the daytime group who are typically unavailable at night. Company 2 is the flexible shift who can cover both day and night calls. Company 3 is the night team who covers calls occurring between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Company 4 is the auxiliary team, where all new recruits start out on the schedule. In this company, firefighters are in support, not lead roles, yet their work is invaluable nonetheless. "All volunteers, regardless of skill levels, are used in a variety of ways because all volunteers are a necessary and valued part of the team," says Chief Flannery. "Recruits are encouraged — and expected — to stay with the team for a few years. The department invests heavily in their training and [we] would like people to stay with it."
With 28 volunteer firefighters, Chief Flannery boasts of a four to seven minute team response time — from the time a call is received until the firefighter is on the scene — as well as the fully staffed department rarely needing to rely on neighboring communities for support. "We can staff more firefighters on-call going out the door [than some of our neighbors]," said Chief Flannery.
Training hones skills
The recruitment process typically starts with an orientation session that can take up to 20 hours a month. Recruits "learn the ropes" by learning basic administrative and procedural skills first, such as report writing and radio communication, to using the different apparatus (e.g., emergency vehicles and pumps) and equipment (e.g., nozzles, hoses and ladders). "It really can take between six months and one year for volunteers to feel fully comfortable in the role," according to Chief Flannery. While new recruits are not sent off to respond to emergencies right away, they can and are put to use on the team immediately.
Firefighting itself has become much more complex over the past 20 years, requiring firefighters to have more knowledge and higher skill levels. To meet the demands of the field, Chief Flannery said, "we have increased our training time from a two-hour drill to a three-hour drill twice a month. In addition, we conduct at least one all day drill a year and have moved to a more comprehensive program that includes a progressive program with practical evolutions." The department also encourages, not requires, firefighters to participate in trainings at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy to "round out" the firefighters' experience and education.
According to Captain Supple, Carlisle has been fortunate to receive access to properties scheduled for demolition for their training. Most recently, the Fire Department was given access to property at 1230 Westford Street for their hands-on training. "You can do all of the academy training, but until you've been bitten by the red devil, you don't know what fire is like. Nothing substitutes for live fire training. And every [firefighter] in Carlisle has been in real live fires," said Supple. "[These trainings] are invaluable."
Live-fire training lets the Fire Department ignite (and extinguish) fires and study the different "stages of fire": ignition, growth, fully involved, then decay. Supple recalled one particular live-fire training experience: "The heat is so intense, it's like standing on the sun." Firefighters ignite different rooms and learn the safest and most effective ways of extinguishing the blaze while working together as a team. Supple talked about the worst fires: those that start in the basement. "Descending down the basement stairs while the gas and heat is ascending the stairs is scary stuff. Heat radiates off the concrete walls. You need to be on top of your game and get [the basement] vented so it can cool off. Basement fires are the hottest and the trickiest to get to."
Recruits have varied backgrounds
From graphic designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, professional cyclists, and those who travel extensively to those who work from their homes, no two backgrounds of Carlisle firefighters are the same. All the department asks of those interested in joining is to have a willingness to learn and a 20-hour-a-week time commitment, though many people in the department easily exceed that.
For new and not-so-new members of the fire department, the common draw to join stems from the person's desire to support the town. "No one is in it for the money," said Captain JJ Supple. "People who walk through the door wanting to join the team want to help people and to protect the town. These are big-hearted guys who love helping people." Likewise, Matt Svatek wants to give back to the town and to the fire department. In 1997, a huge fire devastated his parent's home. The Carlisle firefighters were able to save half of the residence. "[Serving on the Fire Department] is a chance to give back to the community that has supported me for 33 years."
The theme of "giving back" extends from the recruits to their families as well. Not only do the firefighters make sacrifices to be on call by missing vacations and other life events, their families all support them in what they do. Some families even provide "canteen services": bringing food and water to the emergency scene when necessary. Chief Flannery stressed how important it is to keep the team well hydrated and fed, something to which the department is highly sensitive.
Now that these firefighting graduates have achieved certification and the qualifications enabling them to serve any community in New England, chances are they are here for the duration. According to Captain Supple, "[Carlisle] has a gold mine here. I wish all the members of the town knew how lucky they are to have these members at their disposal. I cherish and embrace all members."
© 2006 The