ROCK CAVE - The fourth annual Upshur County Firefighters Academy is off to a blazing start, as enthusiastic participants travel to the Ellamore Fire Department tonight to learn the basics of fire science.
Designed by Upshur County resident David Taylor and Banks District Volunteer Fire Chief Gary Bonnett, the hands-on academy is designed to give participants a "front-seat" view of what it's like to be an Upshur County firefighter. It covers a variety of topics from rural water movement to vehicle extrication, he said at the academy's first session at the Banks District Volunteer Fire Department last week.
Taylor - also the coordinator of Forensic Mondays and Buckhannon-Upshur Leadership Institute of Governmental Affairs - promised participants they would enjoy the 10-week seminar, which meets every Tuesday night from 6-9 p.m. through May 6 at fire departments and other locations across the county.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Katie Kuba
Banks District Volunteer Firefighter Dustin Cesaro, right, helps Lori Dean during the annual Upshur County Citizens Firefighter Academy.
"I've got a big promise for you, and the promise is that this will be the best academy class you've ever taken," Taylor said. "It's hands-on. You're going to have a lot of fun, learn a lot and see what these guys in our county do to keep all of you safe."
Lanny Adkins, program coordinator of the West Virginia University Fire Service Extension and State Fire Academy, served as last week's speaker, providing an overview of the academy.
"You've got to be a different kind of person to be a firefighter," said Adkins, who was a firefighter for 40-plus years. "It's a calling. It's kind of like being a minister or anything else. If you want to be in this business, you better go all the way with it. It's just one of those things that comes on you, and you go 'I gotta be this.'"
Adkins emphasized the range of dangers firefighter face at the scene of a structure fire or a vehicle accident; already in 2014, 22 people have died in the fire service, he said.
"Every scene firefighters go to is a dangerous scene," Adkins said, mentioning cyanide, carbon dioxide and clandestine methamphetamine laboratories as just a few of the health risks.
A 120-hour class called Firefighter I is the most basic course in the fire service that all firefighters in West Virginia are required to take. Topics include medical knowledge, rope work, rescue in confined spaces and learning how to operate various tools and self-contained breathing apparatuses, or SCBAs.
"We take chances other people don't take," Adkins said. "One, because we're trained and we have good equipment that will protect us and we can go in and handle these situations.
"We risk a lot to save a lot; we'll put our life on the line for you any day of the week or our brothers' or sisters' or whoever. We have to understand that that's part of the calling. You have to be there (on an emergency scene) to know what we're talking about."
At last Tuesday's session, participants had the chance to try on flame-resistant bunker gear and SCBAs, which contain breathing air, not pure oxygen, Adkins explained.
Adkins and Bonnett, who is the president of the West Virginia State Fire Chiefs Association, also discussed the dire safety risks created by dwindling volunteerism.
"The national standard is 17 people on scene to fight a structure fire," Adkins said. "Now in the middle of the day when most of us work, guess what? You've only got a handful of guys. Sometimes they're retired and they're old like us, so who gets shortchanged there? You do."
"There will be a day in the life of fire departments when there's not enough people to come," he added, referring to nationwide recruitment and retention problems.
Bonnett said the Upshur County Firefighters Association has agreed that three departments should respond to a fire when it breaks out in the county, but the group is contemplating changing that number to four "just to get enough man power."
Bonnett said initiatives have been conducted wherein volunteer firefighters were given a certain amount of money to respond to a fire call - and still the response rate was largely unchanged.
"The issue is not money, the issue is time," he said. "It's a sad situation that we can't get more younger people to volunteer for the fire service. Upshur County has the best equipment as far as apparatus-wise, has the best training we've ever had. We just can't get the recruits to help out."
The volunteer and career firefighting business is at a "crisis point," Adkins said, adding that the state has no contingency plan in place should departments have to begin shutting their doors.
Because proximity to fire stations and fire hydrants significantly affect home owner's insurance rates and people's ability to secure home owner's insurance, the effect of volunteer fire departments shutting down would be widely felt, Bonnett said.
The Upshur County Citizens Firefighter Academy meets tonight at 6 p.m. at the Ellamore Fire Department.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at IMT_Kuba.