Firefighters life one of constant training, preparedness

Published on Thu, Oct 16, 2008 by Jack Kintner

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Firefighters life one of constant training, preparedness

By Jack Kintner

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFRS) employs 37 career (paid) firefighters who are responsible, along with about 60 volunteers, for fire protection in the 147 square miles that comprise Whatcom County Fire District 21.

They operate out of three primary stations in Lynden, Blaine and Birch Bay that have 24/7 staffing and seven more facilities in such places as Semiahmoo, Custer and Haynie.

In the first nine months of this year, NWFRS firefighters answered a total of 1,739 calls, of which 1,308 were emergency medical services (EMS) calls, 128 were fire calls and 303 were for other purposes. Response time was nearly cut in half from the previous year, from a little over 13 minutes to about seven minutes.

But what do firefighters do when they’re not putting out fires? The answer may surprise some.

Most people know that the picture of firefighters spending their days hanging around the station playing checkers and polishing brass bells exists only in Norman Rockwell paintings. “We don’t really have time to play checkers,” Lt. Leslee Smith said with a smile, implying that they wouldn’t even see a checkerboard unless it were burning.

A veteran Blaine firefighter with 14 years’ experience, ten of them as a career officer, Smith described a firefighter’s life as one of constant training and readiness. “Volunteers must have 180 hours of basic fire training before they are put on active duty,” Smith said, training which is conducted by a county-wide volunteer academy that lasts eight to 10 weeks. Classes are held three days per week divided into three-hour blocks on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 hours (7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) on Saturdays. There is also a state fire academy located in North Bend that trains career firefighters for fire departments and districts throughout the state. Students attend full-time and finish in six months.

“Training includes things like fire suppression, building construction, hazardous materials training, disaster preparedness as well as EMS training,” Smith said, emphasizing that qualifying in most areas must be repeated annually or taken in successive stages in order for firefighters to stay current.

Firefighters also have an extensive public education agenda that includes public school presentations and demonstrations such as the multi-agency DUI demonstrations, job fairs, safety fairs, classes on fire safety and so on.

Aside from staying current with their training, each firefighting crew of four is expected to check their apparatus on a daily basis, which includes stem-to-stern and top-to-bottom checks of the fire trucks and all the collateral equipment that they use on calls. They also all have daily physical training periods, station maintenance assignments and are responsible for fire hydrant maintenance and pressure checks.

“In doing these ancillary duties we also cover one other station in addition to the ones we’re assigned to,” Smith said, “as well as all the paperwork our personal training requires plus reports we write after calls and so on.” Plus that, each career firefighter is expected to take on one additional specific responsibility. Smith and another firefighter take care of all the medical supplies. Another maintains all the pagers and radio gear, another all the mapping and GPS information in the district, another maintains the small tools and other equipment and so on.

The firefighters are divided into three shifts (A, B and C) of 12 including one captain, two lieutenants and nine firefighters. Each primary station gets four career firefighters per shift. Smith said that the way shift assignments are put together in terms of hours can vary widely in different fire departments but at NWFRS it’s a 12-day cycle: 24 hours on, 24 off, 24 on, 48 off, 24 on, 24 off, 24 on, 96 (four days) off. Shifts change daily at 8 a.m.

“The most common questions we get is from people who wonder why a fire engine also shows up when someone calls for an aid car or ambulance,” Smith said, “but the kind of apparatus that’s deployed on a call isn’t up to us, it’s decided by the dispatcher in Bellingham, and they make the decision based on the kind of call it is. They may decide that two people aren’t enough, for example, and so will send an engine as well.”

For more information go to People interested in becoming volunteer fire fighters should contact training captain Craig Johnson at 318-9933.