“May Day, firefighter down.”

Possibly the worst words a firefighter can hear over the radio and a call that changes all parameters of the mission.

“When you hear those words, the stress level is unbelievable,” said Mike Barrett, Deputy Fire Chief for South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department and retired from the Dallas, TX fire department.

“Whatever your mission was before changes to saving a brother of sister firefighter.”

And, as with all aspects of fighting fires, training is an essential ingredient to saving that fellow firefighter.

Members of the South Gulf Fire Department were in Panama City last week training with members of that city’s firefighting force at the Panama City Fire Academy.

“They are really into training over there and we have become just part of the team,” Barrett said, noting that South Gulf in recent months has trained with firefighters from Panama City Fire Rescue, Bay County Fire Rescue and Tyndall AFB Fire Rescue.

“They have probably saved us about $28,000 in training expenses,” Barrett said. “We are especially grateful to these professional groups for taking us under their wings and assisting us in our training.”

The goal of last week’s class, called Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) training, was to learn and participate in ground survival, how to react and act when a fellow firefighter is reported down at the scene.

Most paid departments have firefighters specifically assigned to this task, Barrett said.

Five South Gulf firefighters attended the class, which included hands-on training in searching for fallen firefighters, emergency extrication, self-rescue and the use of thermal imagers and communications.

“This is intense and difficult training,” Barrett said. “Lives depend on our ability to accomplish this mission.

“This was a great class for our folks.”

Firefighting is a dangerous profession under any circumstances, rural, urban, volunteer, paid, Barrett said.

He added South Gulf was fortunate to have individuals willing to carve out the time to participate in training and take it seriously, bringing lessons learned back to the county.

“Time along with fire is the enemy, especially when a firefighter calls Mayday,” Barrett said. “It is the responsibility of every fire chief and fire ground commander to train and keep their firefighters alive.

“My mission is for everyone to go home alive, civilian and firefighter. Training is life. We train like we fight and we fight to win.”

Next up for South Gulf Fire Rescue will be a two-day course next month on operating emergency vehicles