Volunteer firefighter training goes above and beyond

Where there is smoke, there is probably a volunteer firefighter.

Holmes and Washington Counties heavily rely on volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to respond to structure fires, vehicle crashes, natural disasters and other emergencies. But what many donÂ’t know is volunteers get the same training as first responders on a payroll.

“Some people view volunteer firefighters as doing it from the heart and paid firefighters doing it for the paycheck,” said Alfred Sellers, chief at Pittman Volunteer Fire Department.

Sellers knew he wanted to be a firefighter since he was in kindergarten.

“When I started out in 1992, I was the youngest firefighter in the department,” Sellers said. “Most of them were close to retirement age.”

Sellers started out with Pittman VFD and has worked with Gritney to cover calls over the years. In 30 years, firefighter training requirements have changed a lot.

Over the weekend, volunteer first responders from Holmes and Washington departments attended the 17th Annual Northwest Florida Volunteer Firefighter Weekend. This yearÂ’s event was held at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville.

The inaugural volunteer firefighter education weekend had 142 participants that received a total of 1,700 hours of free training in 2006.

This yearÂ’s roster included about 190 participants from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida that spent the weekend in classroom training, simulated environments and browsed the offerings of about 40 fire vendors.

The annual weekend is a source of free training for rural volunteer departments operating on miniscule budgets.

“We went through cancer awareness and decontamination of the suits to learn how to keep them clean and how not to cross contaminate and take any of it home,” said Ebro Fire Chief Wade Moon. It was Ebro VFD’s first year sending firefighters to the training weekend.

“There are certain classes that they are mandated that they have to do,” said Gynell Pettis-Hunter, public information officer at Ponce de Leon Volunteer Fire and Rescue. “If they don’t know how to do something as simple as directing traffic, I don’t need them in our department.”

Pettis-Hunter said PDL has responded to over 250 calls so far this year and averages about 25 calls per month. Most are motor vehicle crashes since they are near the interstate. PDL also responds to medical calls as they have volunteer medics and EMTs and often assist neighboring districts.

Sellers said the terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought profound changes in the fire service due to the large communication breakdown that occurred that day. “Coming out of 9/11, the federal government realized we had to get away from 10 codes and use plain English,” Sellers said.

Volunteer firefighter training now includes more self-care items such as mental health resilience and cancer awareness. After 9/11, research highlighted the elevated risk firefighters are at for multiple types of cancer due to exposure to carcinogens.

ItÂ’s changed the way firefighters are advised to bathe and decontaminate themselves and their gear following exposure.

“Everything in a normal modern day home is a carcinogen,” Sellers said.

This yearÂ’s training weekend included the classic burning structures and vehicle extrication and new additions, such as the application of foam for ethanol-based fires and a class in low angle terrain rescue for when a victim needs to be brought out of difficult terrain using special ropes and pulleys. There was also a class in large animal technical rescue presented by UF Veterinary Emergency.

“We are really big on what kind of training we can get and how far we can take it,” Pettis-Hunter said.

Moon agreed.

“We are only as good as our training,” Moon said.

For more information about Northwest Florida Volunteer Firefighter Weekend, visit