Training by fire

The important thing was to treat it like a real house fire, not just a drill, said Garvin Fire Chief David Bitton.

“We had a couple of teams of people go in and put the fire out,” Bitton said. “It’s really no different than going in in real life.”

The only real difference, he said, was that after a while, firefighters would stop putting out the flames inside the abandoned house. At that point, the building became a controlled burn site.

“Then we had practice protecting surrounding structures and trees,” Bitton said.

The burn, held in Garvin in May, was a good training exercise for members of the Garvin, Tracy, Balaton and Russell fire departments.

While the public most often sees area firefighters when they’re responding to emergencies, there’s much more to their jobs. Volunteer firefighters put in many hours of training throughout the year – ranging from classroom courses to driver and equipment training and hands-on scenarios.

Just becoming a firefighter involves more than a hundred hours of training, said Daryl Bartholomaus, fire and industrial safety coordinator at Minnesota West Community and Technical Colleges. In the past year, he said Minnesota West instructors have taught 144-hour training courses in Clarkfield, Marshall, Brewster, Lakefield and Luverne.

“Those are kind of the basic classes for firefighters coming on board,” Bartholomaus said. Minnesota West also offers more specialized courses and training props. Bartholomaus said training modules for farm accidents, propane fires and firefighting in confined spaces are common requests.

Ghent Fire Chief Cory Crowley said hands-on training is “extremely important. There’s nothing like the real thing.”

“The best training is to have some expertise before you get in (to a fire scene),” said Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith. “It’s going to keep people from getting hurt.”

Variety is also important, Crowley said. Firefighters can be called to help in a wide range of emergencies.

“Every scene is different,” he said.

A lot of fire training also focuses on getting familiar with fire engines and equipment, area fire chiefs said.

“Every year we have a driving course where the guys have to take the trucks out, and we have cones set up,” said Cottonwood Fire Chief Dale Louwagie.

“We usually try to do air pack drills and pumper drills with the fire trucks,” said Minneota Fire Chief Jeff Sussner. “Everyone gets more out of a hands-on training scenario than sitting in a classroom.”

While a controlled burn on an old house or other building might seem like an obvious way to hold firefighter training, Klaith and other area fire chiefs say it’s an event that’s actually getting rarer.

“It’s getting pretty complicated to do those burns,” Klaith said. “There are so many rules and regulations involved.” Instead, many area fire departments work more with training simulations like smoke trailers and other physical props.

“It’s a big dedication to be on any fire department,” Klaith said. Volunteer firefighters face some unique challenges, however. They’re responding to emergencies and trying to stay current with their training in addition to working full-time jobs.

“A small fire department might have training once or twice a month,” usually evenings and weekends, Bartholomaus said.

Time and cost are two reasons why teamwork is also a big element in area firefighter training. Emergency responders from different fire and ambulance departments often work and train together, especially if they’re neighbors.

“We’re very fortunate that a lot of area towns have mutual aid agreements,” Louwagie said. Emergency response is something that touches a lot of people, he said.