NORTH BEND — Firefighters say it’s easier to get into Harvard or Yale than it is to become a career firefighter. Who would have thought that risking your life could be so desirable, in a field in which it’s difficult to find work?
Tax dollars pay for fire stations and their crews. Locally, about 90 percent of revenue comes from property taxes, which have decreased as new construction slows and property values decline.
Yet there are more men and women who want to be trained as firefighters than fire districts are able to hire. But no fire district would have any qualified firefighters these days without volunteer training programs.
North Kitsap Fire & Rescue has been offering an intern academy since 1987, graduating 150 firefighters so far.
In exchange for their service, the fire department provides aspiring firefighters the training and experience that helps them compete for jobs across the country, NKF&R spokeswoman Michele Laboda said.
First taste of heat
NKF&R is able to offer live fire training, by bringing their recruits to the state Fire Training Academy in Olallie State Park near North Bend. Right before he heads in for the first time, intern Rico LeMay says he’s got the jitters.
“I’m so excited, its like Christmas,” he said. Rico is the son of NKF&R Batallion Chief Ken LeMay, who was a trainer at the state academy in the 1990s.
The instructors set large piles of wooden pallets on fire, burning them inside a giant concrete structure, which is able to simulate any type of structural fire. The interns suit up and head inside.
First, they lay low — their instructors want them to know how fire behaves, how it is affected by air flow, how the smoke will mushroom over their heads and slowly creep toward the floor. They learn how to tell the intensity of a fire by the smoke — how fast it spills out the window and how light or dark it is.
Once they get their first taste of heat, the guys became more focused. Intern Sam Berni found it difficult to describe what it was like to feel the fire after learning about it for so long, but said he knew for sure he had a better handle on his training.
The interns are then split into four groups, and learn how to combat two different types of fire on their first day.
After each round, which takes about a half an hour, the teams check their pulses and try to cool down. The fire reached 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit that day. The bells on their air tanks are constantly ringing — the instructors know how to conserve their air when inside a fire, but the interns are often breathing heavily, out of nerves or excitement.
Ashes swirl through the air, which is palpable with smoke — sometimes smelling like a campfire, occasionally a waft of diesel from a nearby simulated fire.
Russell Dent, a Bainbridge islander and this year’s youngest recruit at 20, said he felt “awesome” and hot after his first round in the fire. Brian Sallay, originally of California and now living in Renton, described it as exhilarating.
Rico LeMay said finally going into the fire was like taking away the mystery of the unknown.
“It’s unnatural to go into a burning building” purposely, he said. But he felt protected by the training he received.
Operations Chief Wayne Kier, who has been at NKF&R since 2005, said this team had a particularly strong sense of brotherhood.
“These kids … this group for some reason, they jelled and were a real team,” he said. “Fire work is team work, you have to be a very cohesive team. This team seems to be a notch above many academies.”
Ken LeMay said training is a bit more gentler than when he was an instructor, and definitely since he was in training in 1984.
“They’re nervous and attentive enough,” he said. “We’ll let you know [if a mistake is made], but we don’t punish like we would back in the day.”
Making a career
Since August, the recruits have been training during the week. The days begin early, usually 6:30 a.m., with running and other fitness drills. The instructor will setup a plan for the day — maybe n the classroom, learning how air flow affects a structural fire, maybe learning hydrant operations. The training ends around 5 p.m., and some of the interns go back to their other jobs.
There are 14 members of the 2012 Volunteer-Intern Academy this year, whittled down from 35 applicants after a written exam and interview.
All graduated Oct. 20, where the interns were presented with their Firefighter 1, Hazardous Materials Awareness and Hazardous Materials Operations certifications; special awards, and gave a drillground demonstration to their friends and family. Many will stay on as volunteers to gain more experience or certifications.
Kier heads up the intern program, and said over the last five years each intern trained has cost NKF&R on average $1,100. He said they budget the training program into their department because it turns out fully qualified level one firefighters.
“The small investment to train these young men and women we get in return time on our engine to supplement our full-time staffing,” Kier said. About a third of the academies interns have been women.
The majority of NKF&R firefighters are graduates of its intern training program.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, NKF&R firefighter Mark Cooney remembered feeling he just had to “do something.” He quit his sales job and decided to attend the Bates Fire Recruit Academy in 2002. Paying for the 10-week training course, plus all his fire equipment cost around $5,000, and after graduating, he applied to the intern program.
“I was told [at Bates], in order to get the best experience, the North Kitsap resident program is probably the best overall training program in the state,” he said. Interns work alongside professional firefighters, learning how to drive the truck, work a fire hydrant, and assist EMTs — a hands-on atmosphere.
“It’s complicated to make a living when you’re volunteering 56 hours per week on shift,” Laboda said via email. “I’ve had guys … volunteering for four years trying to get hired.”
It’s no gimmick, no unfounded cliche. The men and women that undergo live fire training, forceable entry exercises, and search and rescue practice do so because they have a deep sense of public service.
The interns come from varied backgrounds. Scott Sommers is a trained chef and worked in some of Seattle’s top restaurants. Brian Sallay was a salesman. Rico LeMay is following in his father’s footsteps. Some are students. Many have already trained as EMTs. But everyone is there for the same reason.
Berni, 29, grew up in a medical family. After attending Seattle University and volunteering at Harborview Medical Center, he trained as an EMT last spring.
“I grew up hearing … what it means to take care of people,” Berni said. “How to help people that are having the worst days of their lives.”
While training, he talked to the other paramedics, who steered him toward NKF&R’s program. It’s a common story — many of the interns heard from other districts that NKF&R is able to offer a free, high-caliber training program.
Former Marine Ryan Sindall, 27, said he was surprised at the depth of NKF&R intern academy. The structure of soldiering and firefighting are similar, he said, in how you deal with stressful situations and “shut[ting] off sensory perception.”
“I knew I was going to do public service when I got out of the Marines,” he said.
Sommers didn’t expect to “keep up with these young guys.” At 34, Sommers is the “old guy” of the recruits.
“I just like helping people. This is one of the best places to do that,” he said.
Volunteers still needed
North Kitsap Fire & Rescue serves about 19,000 people in unincorporated North Kitsap County, including a contract with the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, out of four stations in Kingston, Hansville, Indianola and Suquamish. Including chiefs, EMTs and firefighters, NKF&R has 37 emergency responder staff, and 35 intern volunteers. Laboda said the average NKF&R firefighter earns $72,000 a year. Volunteers are given a per-call stipend ($7.50) and reimbursed for the cost of food ($60 for 24 hours).
Poulsbo Fire, also known as Kitsap Fire District 18, serves about 25,000 residents in 55 square-miles, according to spokeswoman Jody Matson. Poulsbo Fire has 37 staff firefighters and 33 volunteers on their roster. Their training program is much different, and is geared toward weeknight and weekend volunteers, according to Battalion Chief Jim Gillard.
Volunteers begin their training as EMTs, completing 150 classroom hours and ambulance rides with a qualified EMT for field training. For those that want to train further as firefighters, Poulsbo is able to send volunteers to either the local academy in Bremerton or the state Fire Training Academy, using a FEMA grant.
Poulsbo’s volunteer base is “vital,” said Battalion Chief Kurt Krech, who runs the volunteer training program. The volunteers supplement the department’s four stations, which are needed in areas like Keyport and near the Hood Canal Bridge.
Many of the career firefighters talked about family — not just their own significant other’s and children’s commitment to their dangerous job, but the family that is made in the station house. They make dinner together, have chores, and must trust and depend on one another when the siren comes through.
“Most of our folks that work here went through one of these programs, so they’ve walked the walk, they understand what it takes, and are willing to pass that mentorship on,” Kier said.
“The biggest compliment in the world is that someone wants to be like you.”
For more information on how to become a volunteer firefighter or EMT, contact NKF&R — email@example.com or (360) 297-3619 — or Poulsbo Fire — (360) 779-3997.
Academic Excellence (Highest Academic Score in the Academy): Scott Sommers. Also known as valedictorian, the recipient of this award has achieved the highest academic score in the academy.
Bull Dog (For Tenacity, Leadership and Ability to Overcome Adversity): Ryan Sindall, Nickolas Allpress and Rico LeMay. The Bull Dog, awarded over the course of the academy by the instructors, is awarded to recruits who have demonstrated a special degree of tenacity, leadership, commitment to perfection and ability to overcome adversity.
Chief's Company (For the Best Individual Skills, Attitude and Team Spirit): Nickolas Allpress, Duke Keltner, Rico LeMay, Ryan Sindall and Scott Sommers. Selected by the academy drill master, awarded to several recruits whose individual skills, attitude and team spirithave earned them membership on the ideal truck or engine company from this academy.
Most Inspirational (For Exceptional Dedication to Motivating and Supporting the Team): All Fourteen Members of Academy 2012-1.The recipient of this award is usually selected by his or her fellow recruits for exceptional dedication to motivating and supporting the team. For special circumstances, this year’s award recipient was chosen by the drillmaster.