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Fire academy heats up

About 16 fire academy recruits stand next to their fire gear, muscles ready for the shout of their drill instructor’s voice signaling them to gear up.

They have less than two minutes to jump into their boots and pants, haul their jackets on, heave on their compressed air tanks and secure their masks. As the instructor calls an end to the two minutes, only a few of the 16 are completely dressed. The rest are still struggling with their masks or wrestling their tanks onto their backs.

In a military fashion, the instructor says he doesn’t want to have to fight a fire alone while they stand on the side of the road and get dressed.

This is just one of the many scenes of the rigors of training that recruits experience at the Island County Fire Academy, which trains the new firefighting volunteers for North, Central and South Whidbey.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Marvin Koorn said that the district is in need of volunteers. He said because some of North Whidbey’s volunteers are military, the number of fire fighting volunteers fluctuates when these military volunteers are relocated or have to serve overseas.

Currently, the district has lost several of their volunteers over the past year, and consequentially the district is in need of manning power for its engines and fire fighting responders.

“There is always a need to have folks ready to respond,” said Central Whidbey Fire Captain Patrick Kisch.

With this year’s fire academy, recruit graduates will help fill this volunteer need.

“We’re working with 28 recruits right now,” he said.

Kisch said the Island County Fire Academy is the only volunteer accredited academy in the state of Washington. Academy classes take place at the different island firehouses, depending on which firehouse is more conducive to that days training session. This also helps volunteers familiarize themselves with the different district’s firehouses and resources.

The academy is six weeks long and prepares volunteers for the demands of fire fighting. It familiarizes them with the difficulties of working while cold, wet and dirty; how to maneuver in and around the enemy elements of smoke, heat and flames; and how to realize and carry out their individual responsibilities as a team member.

After passing a physical check, a background check and application process, recruits attend classroom sessions on fire fighting and then go on to practice what they have learned in a simulated environment.

They practice equipment preparation and checks, entering a burning building, live fire fighting and team work.

“Watching all the parts come together, that’s really good for the recruits,” Kisch said.

He said fire training is an adrenaline rush, and one of the academy’s main goals is to teach recruits how to keep their minds on survival and on their responsibility toward others.

“You just got to take care of your folks,” Kisch said. “We always tell them, ‘check yourself out, check your buddy out, check your team out.’”

As a group of academy students prepare to enter the smoke filled training building, they look each other over and adjust each other’s masks, tanks or hoods. They make sure no one’s skin is showing and that the level of their air tanks are still OK. Then with arm motions and nods, they start the precautionary procedures to enter the flaming room.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Doug Dickinson, one of the training recruits from Oak Harbor.

Dickinson said he enjoyed the training, but that the intensity and activity was catching up with him.

The academy is four or five days a week for six weeks.

“It’s a huge time commitment,” Kisch said. “People really rearrange their work schedules, family - it’s a real sacrifice.”

He said the recruits range from middle aged volunteers to students in high school. Some are professionals, business men and women, college students, military personnel, mothers and fathers.

Kisch said not all recruits make it through the academy, but he added most of their recruits finish. He said even if someone can’t make it through to become a firefighter, other areas throughout the district are always needing volunteers.

“Not everybody is cut out to be a firefighter, but everybody has something to offer,” he said.

At the end of the several hour training session, the recruits return to the fire house. Many of them are completely drenched. They have soot on their bunker gear, smoke residue on their hats and black smudges across their faces. They tease each other about the job, mistakes and teamwork.

As they eat the soup and sandwiches, provided by Oak Harbor’s Pot Belly Deli, they sound more like kids in a cafeteria than firefighting trainees. But in less than half an hour they will become community service volunteers in training once again, with the responsibility to learn the safety and operational techniques that could save a family’s home or someone’s life.

Kisch said he is pleased with the present group of recruits and hopes to get them out serving the community shortly.

“They will graduate the end of May, fully qualified and ready to respond,” he said.

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