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Working to become better firefighters
From left in the top photo are Rumford and Mexico firefighters Matthew Thurston, Matthew Winston, Justin Buotte, Jeff Harren, Bryan Bouchard and Dalton Bradley. The other photos are various training exercises.
MEXICO -- From August through April, some two dozen men and women from 10 area towns worked around their jobs, families and other commitments to voluntarily dedicate themselves to become state and federally certified in the many skills required to fight fires today.
Bethel Fire Chief Mike Jodrey and Class Coordinator Crystal Aylward have been running Bethel Hill Firefighter I and II classes, which are taught by a variety of fire personnel from across the region and the state. Certification requires some 260 hours of training, which include 37 classes, ranging in length from four to 32 hours.
The morning of their graduation on June 1 at Jackson-Silver American Legion Post in Locke Mills, the six River Valley firefighters participating -- Matthew Thurston, Matthew Winston, Justin Buotte, Jeff Harren, Bryan Bouchard and Dalton Bradley -- sat down in the Mexico Fire Station to discuss this eight-month course.
Winston began by noting, "This type of class doesn't just happen. It takes foresight and planning to be able to meet the standards that have been set and that we have worked towards for eight months."
Harren said, "Don't know about you guys, but for every hour of classes, there was like three hours of studying. That and reading, practicing."
Winston, added, "Then there was practicing things we were reading and practicing the skills."
Winston said taking these classes, paid for by the departments, was voluntary, but "highly suggested."
Harren said, "This kind of program kind of puts everyone at the same level for the basic skills. We all have that starting point. We have Firefighter I and Firefighter II, then you advance. What's nice about this class and having people from the different mutual aid towns is that when we show up to another's fire, one, you're familiar with the people and two, you know what their minmum level of skill is. Also, they're more useful to their respective departments as well as the region."
While certification is not required to join a fire department, those who do not complete the course are limited in what they can do at a fire scene.
During the training, the firefighters learn how fires behave, how to use personal turnout gear, portable fire extinguishers, hoses, foam and ladders; how to size up a fire scene, ventilate a burning building, search for victims, forcibly enter a building - and safely exit it.
Survival or self-rescue skills teach them how, for example, to break a hole in a wall and crawl between 16-inch spaced wall studs to safety.
Skills are not limited to just traditional structure firefighting, however. There’s also wildfire training, extricating victims from a car accident and dealing with a major emergency incident, such as a train wreck. They also learn pre-incident planning to prepare themselves ahead of time for their response. Other classes deal with hazardous materials training, anti-terrorism and basic medical care.
Winston noted instructors were from all over, including one from Providence, RI, a couple from Portland, a bunch from the Lewiston/Auburn area, Oxford County Communications Center, Maine Emergency Management Agency, as well as local fire chiefs like Bob Chase from Rumford and Geff Inman of Woodstock.
As far as what motivated them, Winston responded, "In my opinion, it's a passion that is sometimes very difficult to put into words; it's something we are."
Thurston said, "It was hard to get around jobs and activities we already had planned; had to change everything."
Harren said, "They didn't mess around. You had to be at these classes."
Winston added, "Part of the criteria was being there."
For the most part, they tried to car pool together.
Harren said classes were often two nights a week for four hours and maybe a weekend for eight hours. There were a couple of weeks for breaks without classes. He said there was no monetary gain. "Just enhancing your skills; professional development."
Bradley, the youngest of this group at age 20, said, for him, this represented part of his drive for a career. "For some, the goal is to get a fulltime position. That's my goal. I plan of taking a basic EMT course this summer and moving on from there."
Harren said, "Most fire departments that are hiring are looking for a Firefighter I or Firefighter II and then beyond that, most want EMS training; a lot even want paramedics now."
Winston said, "This helped to work through some fears, whether they be emotional or physical, absolutely, because what we do has the potential to be so diverse, from types of structure fires to responding to accident calls."
Harren said, "In this class, you got to do some things you don't get to do on a regular basis. For those who hadn't done forestry before, a lot of new technology and tactics and considerations for that type of incident."
Besides jobs, some have families, particularly Bouchard, with a young family. He noted that meant a lot of time away from his family.
Winston said, "Going into it was easy, but there were a couple of time during it when I felt I wanted to throw in the proverbial towel, but then I looked at what other people were doing and what I felt I needed to do."
Harren, who will be 55 this year, said there was a huge age difference, as young as age 15.
He said "The ones who wanted to be there had made that commitment. We had a really good class. Everyone got along well, helped each other."
Harren said "A class like this builds confidence, besides the paperwork that you're a Firefighter I and Firefighter II. You build that self-confidence, having gone through some these skills you're required to do, whether it's being up on a 25-foot ladder, taking somebody out of a window, or at a live fire."
Winston said, "We were given, not only the basic tools to get through this and learn what we needed, but so much more. Thanks to the coordinators and the instructors, we were given so many more tools above and beyond the requirements."
"This was intense, but fulfilling. The quality and caliber of instruction was second to none."
Bradley said, "There was never a bad class."
Harren said, "Every class was interesting."
Winston added, "Some more than others."
Harren said the classes were divided into six companies, made up of firefighters from different departments, as well as by experience, age and knowledge.
Buotte said, "There was team integrity throughout the companies. We all worked well together. We all took turns in taking control of the companies, getting the feeling of what it's like to be the leader. It just worked out for everybody in the companies."
Harren said, "Team integrity is critical at scenes, but it helped in these class, too, because it didn't delay things. We went from one station to another and teams were broken up. It made the class run really smooth."
Winston said, "Accountability plays a huge part in fire service in having things flow."
All admitted they were relieved that this commitment is over.
Winston added, "I wasn't releaved until that letter came in the mail (that said he had passed)."
Talking about skills testing at the end of April, Winston said, "There were very intense. With each station, whether fire extinguishers, search and rescue, technical type stuff, simple or not, there were certain skill objectives and if you didn't meet those, you either had to redo or you failed. It was real. It wasn't just come show us how to roll the hose or show that you can search a building and find a victim; they made it real, as much as they could."
Harren added, "If you didn't pass all the objectives, you didn't pass."
He added that the skills testing was done in two-person teams, which included two father-son teams.
Winston said, "A huge amount of credit to Mike (Jodrey) and Crystal (Aylward) and the Bethel Fire Department for hosting."