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Learning to fight fires ... and diminishing government budgets

Firefighters spray the outside of a burning house during a recent training exercise. Photo by Dan Saletel.1 / 2
Cloquet Area Fire District Captain Jesse Buhs, Battalion Chief Steve Kolodge and Captain Chad Vermeersch emerge from the smoke and steam creating during a live-fire training exercise earlier this month on Ditchbanks Road. Inside a burning building, visibility can be extremely limited, hence the reflective bands and flashlights on every uniform. Photo by Dan Saletel/Pine Journal.2 / 2

As the orange flames grow higher and higher, eventually reaching and climbing across the ceiling, the temperature in the room climbs as well. Three trainee firefighters and one experienced firefighter stand in one corner of the room, holding a hose and waiting until the fire is worthy of their water. Two more firefighters crouch in the doorway, watching the trainees, their teacher and the fire, evaluating and providing backup.

On a word from the instructor, one of the trainees douses the fire with water. Instantly, the room is filled with smoke and steam, making it difficult to see your own hand, let alone the person next to you. Wait, wait, wait ... an orange glow is building in the corner. The fire battles back. On first sight it almost feels like a friend, making it possible for you to see again. Then you stick your gloved hand in the air, and realize that the temperature in the top half of the room would be unbearable if you weren't covered in high-tech firefighting gear from head to toe, not to mention the breathing apparatus that is keeping you conscious.

Two weeks ago Wednesday and the week before that, nearly all of the Cloquet Area Fire District's 40 volunteers and 20 full-time firefighters took part in live-burn training exercises on Ditchbank Road in the Fond du Lac Reservation. Outside the temperature approached zero on the final night of training; inside the building burned so hot that water instantly evaporated.

It was good practice for veteran firefighters and an essential introduction for the up-and-coming trainees, who have been working their way through the Firefighter One and Two courses (a total of roughly 160 hours of training) with CAFD trainers for the past several months.

Instructors Chad Vermeersch and Ken Klatt tell the newcomers during the meeting prior to the live fire exercise that there is no shame in being nervous or fearful.

"If you're nervous, don't worry," Vermeersch said. "If you're not nervous, I really don't want to be with you. There should be a little fear, at least. I've had some students who were absolutely terrified that day we took them in on their first Level 1 and turned out to be some very good firefighters."

Since the CAFD was created roughly a year and a half ago, training and safety practices have improved enormously, said Klatt, who is the division chief in charge of all training, safety and ambulance administration.

It is a position that didn't exist before the fire district.

At the live burn, Klatt is dressed to fight fires, but instead of a hose, an axe or a pike pole, he's armed with magnetic white boards.

As each firefighter arrives on the scene, he or she checks in with Klatt and hands him their personalized magnetic name plate. Klatt uses the name plates to monitor where each firefighter is - working on a truck or tanker, inside the building or on the perimeter, for example - and, if they're inside, he notes how long they've been using their supply of air.

"If something bad happens, we know where to check," he explains, adding that other agencies such as electric or gas company employees should also check in with him when they arrive on scene. "And if someone's on the Interior Board, I know how long they've been in there and when they should be coming out."

In most cases, that would be around the 25-minute mark, he explains.

"If it goes past that, I listen for the PAL [personal alert] alarms to ring or I get on the radio and check with that crew," he said.

The whiteboards and Klatt's monitoring of a fire scene are both new since the creation of the CAFD.

"We never had the manpower to do anything," Klatt said. "Most of the time it was four people on a fire truck. You'd get there, you'd go in, put the fire out. Wait for backup to show up, you don't know if people are coming or not. You'd call mutual-aid units, you never knew what they had."

CAFD is unique

The Cloquet Area Fire Department is the first Fire and EMS Special Taxing district in the state of Minnesota, and one of three organizations in the state that fully merged one or more departments - Cloquet, Perch Lake and now Scanlon ¬- into one.

In total, according to CAFD Chief Jim Langenbrunner, the CAFD area of fire protection covers 72 square miles, while its primary service area (for ambulance) is in excess of 250 square miles. (In addition, the Fond du Lac Reservation has also signed a contract for fire protection from the CAFD, although not ambulance coverage for the entire reservation, a portion of which is covered by the Carlton ambulance service.)

In a time of decreased aid to local governments from the state as well as shrinking property tax revenues, its inception preserved the high quality of emergency and fire services that has been a tradition in the area since the Fire of 1918.

"One benefit of the CAFD is that we don't have to worry if the police department goes over its budget, or if it snows a lot and the street department spends more," Klatt said. "We're not going to get cut. We can still provide a high quality service."

In fact, they can provide even better service because the career firefighters and the paid-on-call firefighters who make up the district's workforce now have the same training and a coordinated plan of attack when they get to a fire. In the past, while many of the fire departments would assist one another, things didn't always run smoothly. Different departments had different chiefs, different training opportunities and communication could be sporadic. The desire to help was genuine, but the execution was flawed.

Training never stops

Nowadays, it takes a lot more to be a firefighter than an impressive physique (at least 6-foot, 1-inch and 220 pounds) and nerves of steel. Most full-time firefighters in the CAFD have at least an associate's degree in fire science, plus another two-year degree in para-medicine.

"All but one of our full-time staff is a cross-trained firefighter/paramedic; the one who's not is an EMTI, between EMT-basic and a paramedic," Vermeersch said. "In order to get hired full time, you have to be a firefighter and paramedic."

Paid-on-call firefighters get their training through the CAFD. While training starts with the previously mentioned Firefighter One and Two courses, the learning and testing doesn't stop there. Next comes emergency medical responder training, formerly known as first responder. Then, thanks to Sappi Fine Paper, comes hazardous materials training, aka "haz-whopper."

"Trainees get hazardous materials training in Firefighter One and Two, for things like semis, trains and cars," said Klatt. "Haz-whopper training is specifically designed for industrial fires and accidents."

Finally, new firefighters also get training to drive emergency vehicles and must get their Class B license.

"All that takes at least a year or more," Klatt said, noting that folks who apply to be paid-on-call firefighters are interviewed and screened, then their families are interviewed so everyone is on board with the time commitment required to become a firefighter.

Career firefighters also have ongoing annual training, through the CAFD and - thanks to living in the age of computers - through the Internet.

Another benefit of living in the modern world? CAFD firefighters can also access car schematics via in-vehicle computers so they know where to cut, for example, if a hybrid car is in an accident.

"[Hybrids] have high voltage wires running through the roof, right where we normally would cut," Klatt said. "So there is constant training and education going on just to stay safe and know the minimum."

Planning doesn't stop either

It's been an amazing ride since elected officials from Cloquet, Carlton, Scanlon, Thomson Township, Carlton County and the Fond du Lac community first sat down to discuss the idea of a combined fire and ambulance district some seven or eight years ago, after the double whammy of decreased state funding and a federal mandate that required all ambulances in the United States to accept Medicare assignment for billing on all Medicare patients.

At that time, with ambulance run volume increasing every year, it became obvious that maintaining the status quo was not an option.

Cloquet City Administrator Brian Fritsinger, who served on Governor Tim Pawlenty's task force on shared services and works with the CAFD Board of Directors, says he's convinced creating the CAFD was the right thing to do.

"If you look at the service challenges we were having in this area, there would have had to have been changes in the services the community was receiving," he said. "With any agency like that, there are bumps. But it was definitely a good move."

Now, Langenbrunner said, it's time to make a strategic plan for the next 10 or 20 years.

That's the goal of the CAFD board and its staff - to keep planning for the future.