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Voyageur's Best Features of 2002


Training for the real thing
Becoming a firefighter
by Cynthia Brekke  |  March 26, 2002

Other than a few, melted helmet shields and some slight confusion during the mock 'firefighter down' rescue, the Carlton County fire training session, held at the old Jerry Cochran place (northeast of Cromwell) went extremely well. Fire fighting personnel from Cromwell, Esko, Carlton, Wrenshall, Kettle River, Mahtowa and Wright, were on hand for the Structural Burn Training, which took place Saturday, March 16.

The day was a memorable one from start to finish for this reporter/photographer. The hands-on experience, combined with quality instruction, fun, food and fellowship, was extremely rewarding. It was also a day that included the initiation of Cromwell's two newest members of the Fire and Ambulance Team, Dave Garske and Julie (Hollywood Smith) Forconi.

Early in the morning, licensed instructor and training officer Mike Peterson took everyone through the plan of attack in an hour-long session at the fire hall. Mike is a member of the Cromwell Fire Department and an instructor for the community college system. With six firefighting teams to organize, a Personal Accountability Report (PAR) system was put in place. Cromwell Fire Chief, Steve Bridge, was the incident commander and in charge of organizing the men in the hot zone. A section board was to be placed just outside the house and all firefighters entering the building would be required to sign in.

Following the overview, everyone headed for the site and preparation immediately began. Outside the hot zone, numerous firefighting personnel and equipment were placed strategically, to complete the plan. Everyone had a role and the ever-important aspect of working together was put in place to ensure a successful training experience. Tankers were lined up down the road, filled with water, ready to be spilled into the drop tanks. A station was set up for air tank replenishing. The Emergency Response Team (ERT) was in place, with an ambulance waiting, and a few trucks were in place in case of an actual fire emergency.

In the hot zone, Fire Chief Bridge was busy organizing and getting teams ready for entering the house and attacking the fire. One area of concern outside the house was going to be the large pine trees, which would more than likely ignite. Teams were set up outside to keep water on the trees and possibly save them.

During the first stages of training, a level-one fire was ignited in a small room, inside the house. Each team of firefighters went through their practice exercises. It was at this time that the trainers were gracious enough to allow me an up-close chance to photograph the experience. Lonny Gervais was my personal attendant and was responsible for my safety. He did a fine job and was patient enough to allow me a couple of go-arounds.

Conditions were challenging for pictures, with all the thick smoke and the tight space to work in, but the experience was well worth it. Not thinking ahead, I discovered it is impossible to look through the camera's view finder with a full-face mask (and a filter) on my head.

As the fire crawled up the walls, traveled over the ceiling and moved out the door, Mike's advice earlier in the morning rang loud and clear: "If your ears get a little tingly – DON'T STAND UP." This was easy advice for me, but for new firefighter, Dave Garske, it was a bit more challenging.

For the 6' 4" Garske, standing up was near the ceiling. During the training, Mike yelled at him to get down. "He was down," said teammate, Lucas Goodin. "He's still tall when he's on his knees." While on his knees, the heat from the fire melted his helmet shield, before his team managed to subdue the fire, knock out the window and vent the smoke. According to Dave, "I cooked my hat."

Dave Garske started his training this past September with fellow new member Julie (Smith) Forconi. The two of them logged 110 hours of EMT training, completed a test and then were required to complete 12 hours of ride-alongs with Gold Cross Ambulance in Duluth.

Julie has always known she was going to join the Cromwell Fire and Ambulance team. It was just a matter of finishing college and making sure she was going to return to the area. Currently, Julie is making a job change. She is going from Mercy Hosital, in Moose Lake, to Riverwood HealthCare in Aitkin. She will work in Cardiac Rehab. Eventually, she plans on working in McGregor, based on a three year expansion plan that's in the works. For Julie, the biggest, eye-opening experience about her new position has been the number of hours everyone in the department puts into this service - especially Mike Peterson. "I must say, he's on the ball," said Julie. "He spends a lot of time and it seems like he always has something going."

Unlike Julie, Dave Garske did not have plans of ever fighting fires. Dave recalls being recruited: "Steve (Bridge) and Mike (Peterson) saw me at a dance and brought me down to the fire hall. They said, 'Here's our new member.' It wasn't until later that they told me everything else I had to go through."

Now, with the 110 hours of EMT training behind him, Dave will begin 78 hours of Fire Fighting 1. Dave feels he is learning a lot and it's good for the community. Dave's thoughts on the whole process are similar to Julie's: "I'm amazed at how much effort these guys put in... people don't realize how much knowledge and training is involved. It's a great service to the community."

The controlled structure burn (on Saturday) is just one of many training exercises Carlton County Fire Departments will engage in. Mike Peterson is always looking for more opportunities to train. "We've been lucky lately," said Mike. "We've had about two or three each year. Plans are already in place for another this year and two more next year."

At some of the burns, up to 10 departments are on hand. Mike didn't feel this particular house would hold long, so six departments were invited. Mike went on to share how each structure is different and fire behaves differently in each house. The only drawback with an experience like this is the fact that it is not realistic without furniture. "All the furniture and appliances give off a methane gas when the fire reaches temperatures of 900 to 1,400 degrees," said Mike. "If oxygen is still present, a 'flash-over' occurs and everything lights up. At this point, temperatures can reach 2,000 to 3,000 degrees and no one can survive in that kind of environment." Mike went on to add that flash-over is taking place much sooner than it did 30 years ago. "In the 1970's a flash-over would take place about 20 minutes after the fire started. Now, studies show, it occurs in under 10 minutes. The biggest reason is all the plastic and synthetic material in the house. Even the poly in the walls and the coating on wires give off the gas."

During the second phase of training, two teams would experience a Level 2 fire, where more than one area is burning and there is the potential for flash-over. Mike led the second team which managed to knock the fire down. The team met flames right at the doorway and managed to create enough steam to absorb some of the heat. The next step was to listen, because visibility is zero, then feel for heat and hit it with spray. With the help of a ventilation fan, blowing in, the fire actually cools down and helps to prevent flash-over.

Mike and the team managed to make their way through the entire house. "I was hoping to do it again, but it was too dangerous," Mike commented. All that was left was controlling the fire as they let the house finish burning and protect the trees surrounding the house.

In the afternoon, the training started to wind down and the fun, food and fellowship began. The new owners of the property, the Monson family, were on hand and Mike gave them an opportunity to man one of the hoses. They were delighted with the experience and the fact that the pine trees appeared to be unharmed.

Later, the rookie initiation took place. Dave Garske took a couple of water buckets over the head and Julie Forconi found herself in one of the drop tanks. So, does the dunk tank experience eliminate rookie status? "Since I got dunked, it sure better," said Julie.

Nevertheless, with each training exercise, and each real life emergency, Dave and Julie will look less like rookies and more like veterans. Good luck to the Cromwell Fire and Ambulance Service and all the other area departments in their efforts to protect the surrounding communities.

This article first appeared in the March 26, 2002 issue of the Voyageur Press.