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Training for the ‘hot spot’

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com
The Star
Patrick Foy chose, chose mind you, to spend last Saturday in 40 or so pounds of bunker gear on a hot and humid day.
Foy, with the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department, spent eight hours, not on the beach, but under the watchful eye of instructor Charlie Frank, demonstrating some of the tools required of those who achieve Firefighter 1 status.
And that certification is required, coming only after nearly 200 total hours of training, to enter the “hot spot” of a fire, whether in a structure or a dumpster, Frank said.
“You have to be dedicated,” said Frank, the Florida Volunteer Firefighter Coordinator, said. “Patrick did very well; he is very dedicated.
“He will be a good firefighter.”
Foy was put through the paces on a number of elements of the job, including raising and setting ladders, rescuing an injured firefighter down a ladder, tying off ropes during a fire and self-rescuing by pushing through walls into another room through a confined space.
All in 40-50 pounds of bunker gear no less; over eight hours.
“Firefighting is a hard, hot, dirty profession,” said South Gulf Assistant Chief Mike Barrett. “Proper training is the lifeblood of the fire service.
“Putting on 40-50 pounds of bulky bunker gear and an air tank in any weather is not easy. Factor in the heat and humidity and it makes firefighters’ mission even harder.”
As the state’s volunteer coordinator, Frank’s job is to cover the entire state and assist volunteer and combined fire departments with training, recruitment and retention and other facets of the profession.
That recruit and retention component is becoming more and more important.
Astonishingly, two-thirds of all certified firefighters in the nation are volunteers.
The importance of certification, Frank said, can not be overstated.
“If I am not a Firefighter 1 I can not go in to put that fire out and, by law, the commander on scene can not send that individual into a fire,” Frank said. “(That commander) is responsible for that individual.”
Among the country’s population of 328 million, there are just 1.15 million certified firefighters; Gulf County is served entirely by volunteers.
“This county and its residents are blessed with so many hard-working men and women serving it its fire departments,” Barrett said.
Frank said the chronic issue of maintaining the ranks of volunteer fire departments hardly stops on the Gulf County borders.
“It’s everywhere,” Frank said. “It’s not just a local issue, it’s not just a Florida issue, it’s not a national issue. It is a global issue.
“Everywhere you are seeing a decline in volunteerism, in volunteer firefighters.”
In the past couple of years, the state has made it easier for volunteers to earn their Firefighter 1 certification.
An online course has been established at no cost to participants, Frank said, adding the only requirement is a physical exam prior to starting the course.
A portion of the training, as with Foy last Saturday, requires demonstrating skills for a certified instructor, which Frank, a firefighter since 1983, is.
In addition, part of Frank’s job entails facilitating grants to local fire departments.
A Firefighter Assistance Program established by state lawmakers set aside $1 million for grants to assist in the purchase of bunker gear, instructor costs and other equipment.
The state will also provide a 5 percent match for certain purchases of major equipment such as pumpers or engine trucks.
Frank also helped establish the Northwest Florida Volunteer Firefighter Weekend, Inc., which is an annual training event in Niceville, which includes six “live burn” training sessions.
Frank noted that South Gulf sent several firefighters last year and will likely do so again this year.
“It’s a clear passion of mine and it is of Mike’s (Barrett),” Frank said. “We need more of that kind of passion.”