Friday, November 7, 2008
Carlisle’s firefighters can take the heat
It was pitch dark at 7:30 last Wednesday evening and the temperature hovered around 37° as Engine 3 of the Carlisle Fire Department responded to the call. A house fire had been reported at 872A Westford Street. As the engine arrived, a window in the ground floor exploded releasing flames that rose toward the exterior siding.
The firefighters sized up the situation, positioned the truck, advanced the hose line and entered through the front door. Acrid smoke poured from the doorway while flames continued to escape from the room below. Firefighters on the truck maintained radio contact with crew members who made their way through the smoke-filled house toward the source of the blaze. Within a few minutes, the dark smoke was replaced by lighter, cooler steam and by 8 p.m., the fire had been fully extinguished and the crew was outside reviewing their work.
Luckily, in this situation, no one had to fear losing their home or property. This had been a live fire training session for the Carlisle Fire Department. Several minutes later another team of Carlisle firefighters would arrive to practice their technique on a second fire in the same building.
Live fire training
These live fire sessions provide an opportunity for personnel to test and improve their skills in a real life situation. “It all comes back to your training,” explained Deputy Chief Jonathan White.
“If you don’t train people under stress, when they go out into a stressful situation, you can’t be sure how they will react. We’ve had live fire training every year for the last four to five years.”
According to Chief David Flannery, a live fire session is conducted on a building that has been “donated” for training purposes. The Department of Environmental Protection must inspect for hazardous materials before it approves the use of a particular structure. For the training session, the Fire Department prepares the site, sets a fire inside the structure and monitors the performance of the responding crew. An officer and an experienced crew remain on site for safety purposes and to ensure that standard procedures are followed. They also monitor the technique and skills of the firefighting crew and provide feedback at the scene immediately after the fire has been extinguished. “We even critique the officers,” observes White, “We all want to improve on everything we do.”
Local training program
The live fire sessions are just one part of an extensive firefighter training program designed specifically for the Carlisle Fire Department by White and Captain John (J.J.) Supple. The program takes into account the unique nature of firefighting in a town with no hydrants and no full-time firefighters. To develop and maintain their skills, all personnel must participate in ongoing departmental training sessions. White explained that larger towns and cities use firefighting academies or their own full-time training programs so that new hires are fully trained by the time they go on their first call. In Carlisle, however, everyone starts as an auxiliary firefighter or auxiliary firefighter/EMT. On calls, auxiliary personnel must work with someone who is more fully trained. The first year with the department is a probationary period and the officers meet monthly to review the skill level of each firefighter.
Division of tasks
Job titles and descriptions for fire department personnel vary from town to town. The Carlisle Fire Department recognizes five personnel levels: auxiliary firefighters, auxiliary firefighter/EMTs, regular firefighters, regular firefighter/EMTs and officers. Although the department would prefer to have 30 firefighters on call, there are currently 26, including officers.
“We do approximately 200 fire calls and 180 medical calls per year,” says White. For this reason the Carlisle Fire Department training program focuses on both firefighting skills and preparedness for medical calls.
Firefighter training on-going
The firefighting portion of the training includes the use of self-contained breathing apparatus and training in the use of all equipment and vehicles. Because there are no hydrants in town, training on the use of tankers and pump engines to provide water to the scene is extremely important and somewhat specialized to the town. In addition, personnel must know all standard operating procedures, the layout of the streets in town and they must be able to use several departmental software systems. These computer programs were written in-house by Burt Rubenstein and Jeff Kiel. They provide department personnel data, including availability, crew assignments, training level and hours worked. They also provide a “run report” which contains a myriad of information about each fire or medical call, including the location of the call, the closest source of water, which support personnel or equipment from neighboring towns is required for the call and which Carlisle personnel will be involved.
Because such a variety of skills and technical knowledge is needed, firefighter training is an ongoing effort. Weeknight training is held twice a month on Wednesdays and there is also an annual full-day training session. Each firefighter must complete half of the offered training sessions each year and each firefighter/EMT must complete 28 hours of continuing education credits every two years.
“J.J. and I head up the training program and the officers plan the subjects at our monthly meetings,” White explained. “J.J. does most of the assigning of personnel and the officers classify each member’s skill level. This determines what they do for training each time.” Before each training session, White and Supple meet to go over the details and locations and to determine who will run each segment of the training.
Wednesday night training sessions begin in the classroom and then move to hands-on training. At recent Wednesday sessions the department practiced using the new portable water tanks and practiced ladder operations for chimney fires on the roof of the Highland Building. The sessions begin at 7 p.m. and last until 9:30 or 10 p.m. According to White, it is hard, physical work. “This is not your regular job,” he reminded, “These people have to get up and go to work the next day.”
State training is required for EMT certification. The Carlisle Fire Department provides monthly EMT training, an additional 6 to 8 hour annual training session and, every other year, a 28-hour EMT refresher course. Carlisle firefighter/ EMTs must complete training programs to operate the ambulance, to use the radio system and to properly complete medical reports for the hospital.
White notes that occasionally the Fire Department is contacted by someone who wants do only EMT work, but that Carlisle requires all Fire Department personnel to be trained in firefighting. He explained that incidents such as car accidents require knowledge of hazardous materials in addition to medical training. Gasoline, car batteries and air bags can create dangerous situations for responders. Full firefighting training is therefore required for all personnel.
White admits that the biggest challenge to firefighting in Carlisle is the lack of hydrants. In general, three engines are needed to fight a fire. The attack engine, with three firefighters and an officer responds first, carrying 1,250 gallons of water. A tanker truck with an operator and two firefighters, carrying 3,500 gallons of water is used to supplement the original 1,250 gallons. Finally a supply pump engine is required to move water from a cistern or surface water supply to the site of the fire. White notes that because there are no hydrants, “What another town can do with one engine company takes us three. It requires more people, trucks and equipment.” It also requires a different type of training.
The Carlisle Fire Department is one of the very few remaining “call” departments in the eastern part of the state. A call department is one in which there are no full time employees. Every member of the Carlisle Fire Department has another job, but each must be available a minimum or 25 hours per week for Fire Department work. White, who has been with the department since 1968, admits, “We have 2-3 people here who are routinely available 400 – 500 hours per month. The town is very lucky to have them. In my tenure, there have always been a few people who keep us running.” But White also admits that it is becoming more difficult to get daytime coverage.
White noted that Carlisle firefighters take their work seriously. “Fourteen of our firefighters have received state Firefighter I and Firefighter II certifications.” Department members have additional certifications in areas such as extrication, national incident command and aerial (ladder) technique. White sees attitude as the biggest difference between a call fire department and a full-time department. “The Carlisle firefighters are serious. They want to improve.” He adds, “A couple of years ago on Milne Cove Road, I had to stop a Wednesday night training session early because of lightning. No one wanted to leave. They kept saying, ‘We’re not done yet.’ That’s the big difference. They want to be here. They love the job. It’s not about the money, it’s about helping people.” ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito