Fire and smoke filled the brick ranch house on Hagen Lane in Flossmoor. As firefighters entered the house, an oxygen tank exploded.
Crews from Flossmoor and other communities went to work, first searching for any victims inside the house. They found an elderly woman and had to figure out how to remove her as the structure burned around them.
Matt Berk, a Flossmoor fire captain and his department’s training officer, was inside the house. He huddled with his counterparts from Hazel Crest and Chicago Heights and they decided there was no way to remove the woman through the front door. The fire was too intense in that direction. They decided to take her out through a window.
It was, Berk said, a “game-time decision.”
Berk went outside and directed the operation on the receiving end. Three firefighters hoisted the victim up, then transferred her to the crew outside the house. The woman was quickly moved into a waiting Homewood Fire Department ambulance and taken to the hospital. She later died from her injuries.
“We have to train for the worst case scenario,” Berk said. “That doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, we have to be ready. If there is an incident like the Hagen fire, everyone can adapt and conform to that particular situation. We have to be able to make split second decisions.”
It’s all about the training
Today’s firefighters and paramedics may travel in quarter-million-dollar ambulances with telemetry equipment normally found in an ICU unit. Or on pumper trucks — loaded with hoses and ladders — that are state of the art apparatus designed for extinguishing all kinds of fires.
By itself, though, all that equipment won’t keep our communities safe. The Nov. 7 Hagen Lane fire showed the value of training when the worst scenario erupts without any warning.
Firefighters and paramedics are trained to deal with emergencies from the first day that they join the fire service. They must know how to put out fires, save the lives of accident victims, drive giant trucks and handle hoses. They must learn how to put on their gear — helmet, hood, boots, gloves, protective coat and trousers — in less than 60 seconds. They must practice carrying fire victims down a ladder.
And much more.
“Training never ends,” said Homewood Fire Chief Bob Grabowski. “There are constant changes and we have to be ready for them. We need to stay on the cutting edge, whether it has to do with serving our citizens or keeping ourselves as safe as we can.”
Grabowski started his fire service career 30 years ago as a cadet in Country Club Hills.
“Back then we trained one day a week, on Tuesdays,” he said. “Now we train every day.”
To be specific, three hours of every 24-hour shift.
A full year of training topics
In December, Grabowski and Assistant Chief Steve DeYoung put together a training matrix for 2016. It shows what firefighters and paramedics will be working on every month. There are 19 topics in all, ranging from Self Contained Breathing Apparatus to fire extinguishers to Hazmat issues to building construction to driver training. Technical rescue topics cover a variety of situations – ice, trench, confined space, water and rope. Other topics deal with fire behavior, officer development, and how to prevent hearing loss.
In terms of staffing, there are some differences between the Homewood and Flossmoor fire departments. Homewood, twice as large as Flossmoor, has 17 career officers who are full-time village employees; all are certified as firefighters and paramedics. The department also relies on 18 part-time firefighter-paramedics who work 12-hour shifts.
Grabowski said at least five firefighters work during each shift and that the department can respond to two, possibly three, incidents at the same time. Between 60 and 70 percent of all calls in Homewood are for EMS services.
Flossmoor, with what is known as a combination department, has three career officers — Chief Chris Sewell, Assistant Chief Keith Damm and Captain Berk. There are also nine contractual firefighter-paramedics who are employees of Kurtz Ambulance in New Lenox.
Like their Homewood counterparts, they work 24 hour shifts with the next 48 hours off. There are also 15 part-time firefighter-paramedics who alternate as the fourth member of each shift. As a result, Berk said, Flossmoor always has four people on duty “24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” Training in Flossmoor also takes place every day.
In addition, Flossmoor has 30 to 35 paid-on-call volunteer firefighters who “back fill” at the station when shift workers go out on calls. They are paid $12.50 for each call. Berk pointed out that one advantage to the paid-on-call system is that Flossmoor picks up the cost of education for volunteer members of the department. He started out as an 18-year-old cadet, got his first training in the fire academy, has worked in three departments and, over the years, has received associate and bachelor’s degrees; he is now working on a master’s in public administration degree at Indiana University.
Rescuing victims, facing hazardous materials
Homewood and Flossmoor also train with their counterparts from other communities through MABAS District 24, a mutual aid consortium made up of 20 south suburban fire departments. MABAS — it stands for Mutual Aid Box Alarm System — offers monthly training sessions. It also conducts a fire academy that teaches recruits the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) curriculum that is mandated throughout Illinois.
Berk is directing the current MABAS 24 fire academy, which started in October and will run through April. Classes are taught by professionals in MABAS’ 24 departments. The academy offers a combination of classroom learning and hands-on training. Students learn about how fires start and what keeps them going. About building construction and features like trusses, walls, floors and loads. About shutting down utility lines. About driving trucks, dealing with Hazmat situations and rescuing fire victims.
Classes are held on Monday and Wednesday evenings, with additional training on Saturday mornings. Much of the academy’s program takes place at the Brian Carey Training Center in Homewood. The center, named for a Homewood firefighter who died in the line of duty in 2010, has both classroom space and a burn area, where students can encounter fire conditions; only non-toxic smoke is allowed at the Brian Carey facility.
Grabowski called the Brian Carey Training Center “a unique building.”
“There’s nothing else like it in the south suburban area,” he said.
The academy teaches fire service fundamentals along with “real world knowledge,” Berk said. Students graduate with eight kinds of certification.
After graduating from the academy, new Flossmoor firefighters have a one-year probationary period.
“That’s when we teach them the Flossmoor way,” Berk said. “What is unique about our department. Why we have hoses on our trucks in a certain way. What is different about our fire trucks and ambulances.”
Homewood and Flossmoor firefighters also train together three times a year at the Orland Park Fire Department tower, which provides an environment accurately duplicating the smoke and heat of an actual fire. The Country Club Hills and Glenwood departments also take part in the exercise. Grabowski said the trips to Orland Park give each shift of firefighters a yearly chance to take part in “live” fire training.
That kind of training is always important, he said.
“When you get close to a fire, you can feel it,” Grabowski said. “You can see the light from the fire through the visor on your helmet. But with the smoke, you can’t see someone who’s two feet away from you.
“You train for any circum-stance. Seconds count.”
This story originally appeared in the January print edition of the Chronicle. Cover photo by Tom Houlihan.