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ON THE SCENE: On becoming a Fire Company Officer 1
April 6, 2018

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Imagine that you're the fire chief facing a fire such as the ones that consumed the Valley Grocery, Mirror Lake Inn, and Lake Placid Lodge.

Reinforcements are coming in to help. The firefighters from surrounding towns include men and women whom you've not worked with before. You have a few minutes to identify water sources, establish priorities and instruct your incoming chiefs and lead firefighters, that they may in turn instruct their teams. Setting the right priorities is key, especially with regard to safety and lines of communication.

On Thursday, March 29, 11 of 19 firefighters - one woman and 10 men - from across Essex County and one from Franklin County received their Fire Company Officer 1 graduation certificates. To get them, they had put in more than 100 hours of classroom, practical and homework time. New York state is offering the relatively new Fire Company Officer 1 course to ensure that all lead firefighters, volunteer or paid, work from the same protocols and step into any situation knowing how to handle the challenges before them.

"When you arrive at a fire, first you try to assess the entire scene," said Brian Stoddard, one of the graduates. "Number one is life safety: firefighter safety and any people if they are inside. If you can confirm that nobody is inside, then it comes down to whether or not we can save the building, and whether or not we'll endanger firefighters. Then we decide how to attack it. How far along is the fire? How much of the building is involved? Is the fire in the roof? In the basement? Are we going to be able to make entrance? Can we make entrance safely and then get back out?

"We have to assess our water sources and manpower, equipment, additional aid if it's needed, surrounding structures and exposures. A number of things. Are there any animals in the building? They developed this course to get firefighters thinking along the same lines when they each roll up to the scene of a fire. So when they call dispatch, everyone knows what's going on. Communication is huge. You want everyone on the same page as fast as possible."

With the number of people stepping up to volunteer in the North Country shrinking, fires are increasingly fought with the assistance of fire crews from the surrounding area.

As a result, chiefs depend on a mix of people whom they either know or, increasingly, do not know well. Good communication ensures that the public and fire personnel remain safe; therefore, having a Fire Company Officer 1 in each fire department is becoming more critical.

Serving in a fire department is extremely rewarding. You become a member of a family of professionals who have your back, both literally and figuratively, and share a passion for helping others, for keeping their family, friends, neighbors and communities safe.

Fire departments need more than men and women who fight a blaze hands-on. They also need support personnel to control traffic and insure that there is plenty of food, water and dry clothing for those on the front line. All positions are important, and those who fill them are highly valued.

It's not uncommon for people who volunteer to become firefighters for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. Yes, the training is arduous, but there's great satisfaction in the knowledge gained, friendships made and good work done.

Each fire department has its own character. Many provide a combination of fire, rescue and emergency medical services. Lake Placid's department focuses on firefighting, even maintaining a fireboat on Lake Placid. Keene and Keene Valley departments are also called on year round for hiker rescues in all manner of weather. All these departments are universally staffed with responsible, kind and giving people, men and women, willing to respond to the needs of others, whatever these may be.

This year's Fire Company Officer 1 graduation ceremony was held at the Keene firehouse. It was followed by a dinner at Baxter Mountain Tavern organized by one of the graduates, Dan Plumley of the Keene Fire Department, assisted by Chief Jody Whitney. The course was arduous and took up a lot of time. Instructors Patrick Tromblee and Kevin Woodruff put in no less time and effort than did their trainees.

"This training allows the participants to run scenes with response purposes," said Whitney. He's been the Keene fire chief for 26 years. "It's a leadership course. If I show our stats over the last 20 years, you'll see a steady decline in membership in our and other fire departments. The monthly meetings, the drills and the hours trainees have to put into becoming certified adds up to a lot of time away from family. I do it because I like to help people. I've been with the department since I was 18 years old."

The recent Valley Grocery fire sparked a discussion between the leaders of Keene's two fire departments and Joe Pete Wilson, town supervisor, on the importance of recruiting volunteers and finding ways to make training less time consuming by offering more in-house training.

"Our town is run by volunteers," said Wilson. "Our fire departments and EMS are the backbone of what keeps our town safe and protected. You saw the turnout two weeks ago at the Valley Grocery fire when we really needed it. No other structure was damaged thanks to all the training these firefighters have had. We need to get more people of every age involved. Many volunteers who've been involved for so long are nearing retirement. There hasn't been an equal number of new recruits."

"I'll have been in the department 45 years on May 3rd," said Andy McGill, second assistant chief at the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department. "I've stayed in so long because I enjoy doing it. We've got a good bunch of people."

"I decided to take this course because more knowledge is always better," said Charles Farnsworth of Mineville. "Joined just to help the public. You never know when someone needs help."

"I liked the course," said Robin Lambert, of the Chilson Volunteer Fire Department. "It was very informative. There aren't many women in the department, but more and more are joining. I've been treated equally. There's no difference. I feel great about getting my certificate. We learned a lot. We're going to take what we've learn back to our departments and go from there."

"These firefighters did a great job," said course instructor Kevin Woodruff. "They're what we need in the fire departments, people who will step up and take the training. Because in this field, everything changes almost on a daily basis."

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