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Monday, May 2, 2016

SL firemen warm to state mandates, others smolder

Thursday, December 6, 2001

Firefighting isn't as much fun as it used to be, but you won't hear many complaints around the Storm Lake fire station.

As state leaders debate a controversial plan for new mandatory training and certification of volunteer firefighters, there are rekindling concerns that the rising demands will cause volunteers to hang up their boots. That could create dangerous situations in the rural communities that depend on their protection.

In Storm Lake, training has never been a burden, even when it changes the nature of the job, according to Chief Mike Wilson.

"I don' t hear a lot of complaints from our guys. The first thing we look for in a firefighter is a person who really wants to do it. It's not as much fun as it used to be, and more of a job, granted. They have to deal more and more with complicated issues like hazardous materials, and there is much more training to be done than ever before," Jones said. "I don't think they look at that training as a burden, however."

While some departments worry about the impact of a potential training mandate for volunteer firefighters, Jones sees it as a good opportunity.

"I think there should be some standards mandated statewide - but it is important that if the state is doing the mandating, that it also be prepared to provide some money to offer the kind of training they are mandating," the chief said.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Association of Professional Fire Fighters said that it will recommend that instead of a mandate, that the standards will be left up to local fire chiefs to implement. Lawmakers may or may not agree. While the state has never dictated training procedures to Iowa's 16,000 volunteers before, state-based training is not a new concept. The state fire marshal's office has provided some limited funding toward optional training at times, and the state fire training bureau in Ames has been a helpful resource to many departments, Jones said.

"Mandatory training is a good idea. It could become a very heavy burden though, if the state hands down a lot of mandates and leaves all the cost to communities to meet."

The entire Storm Lake department is currently going through "firefighter one" training, and Jones expects that if state mandates are approved, they will be based heavily on that program.

"These are kind of the essentials of firefighting. The state may be looking particularly at training the new people coming onto departments, but we are taking all of our members to this training and going for all to be certified at one level or another," he said. "It's good for everyone to go back to basics sometimes, and I would hope that is the general idea of mandated training as well."

The training could be a big help when local departments are called to mutual aid - the larger fires or disasters in which several rural departments may be called to work shoulder-to-shoulder in the most challenging of conditions.

"It's always nice to know that the guy beside you is on the same page. It helps when you feel like you know exactly what those people will do in a certain emergency," Jones said.

Despite all the concerns about the fading of the volunteer firefighter tradition, Storm Lake has found no problems filling out its complement of yellow suits - even with training taking more and more time and commitment.

"It's never been difficult to get volunteers here. We do accept applications, and we conduct physical agility testing and oral interviews before we make a choice," Jones said. The Storm Lake department does not offer a written test for potential firefighters.

"It's always possible that one day it will get to the point where the hassles outweigh the rewards for people, and they may stop thinking it is worth doing. It is difficult to say where that point is, but from my experience here, I think the future of volunteer firefighting is still a good one," he said.

Storm Lake had better hope so. The department has only two paid professionals, and relies on its 28 volunteers to respond to fires, explosions, accidents and rescues - a total of 182 calls in 2000.

The department has a mix of newcomers, including its first-ever female firefighter, and veterans, with some on the department for over 20 years.

"Training standards in Storm Lake have always been reasonably high, and we have taken advantage of training offered by different outside agencies for both our beginning people and those who have been on the department for some time. As you get older, the adjustments to the changing requirements can be a little more difficult - I can tell you first hand that climbing out of bed in the middle of the night to go a fire is a little tougher than it was ten years ago," Jones laughed.

The department has no complaints, however.

"It is a difficult time, with budget cuts at the state level that will probably affect our training funds and possible grant programs out there. The city does the best they can with what they have. The economy has to impact everyone, and we are no exception. Like anyone else, I could name off a wish list, but overall, the city has been very good to us and has done well for the people and in keeping the equipment up to date," Jones said.

Support comes in many forms beyond a budget. It is spouses and families that understand the time demands and unpredictable nature of volunteer firefighting, the employers who understand when a worker drops everything to respond to a page, the people who support the cause.

"This community gives immense support to it's fire department, during our volunteer fundraiser and in supporting us all year around," Jones said.

Why do these people give so much of their times, take on the potential risk, stand willing to sweat and freeze, and climb out of bed for every alarm at all hours? That might be the hardest question to answer, and no mandate can match what they give already.

"I honestly can't tell you why they do it. I can't even tell you why I did it when I decided to start as a volunteer. They are just a dedicated breed of folks, with a real sense of camaraderie. Once you've done it, you stick with it. We don't lose very many, unless they move out of town," Jones said.

You can't train that kind of dedication into a person, or mandate that kind of results.

In fire calls in Storm Lake, the average time between the call being placed to 911 and the first truck full of volunteers rolling away from the station is between three and four minutes. "That's how good these people are," Jones said.

Mandatory training is expected to be recommended by the State Fire Service and Emergency Response Council in January. The state would dictate the "I-level" training as well as certification requirements for volunteer firefighters.

Volunteer firefighters would have to train a minimum of 60 hours to attain "Firefighter I" certification under the proposals. Veteran firefighters would have to train at least 24 hours per year to maintain certification.

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