Training gets South End firefighters ready for the real deal

From fires to car wrecks, in case of emergency the volunteers of South Whidbey Fire/EMS are the first in line.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS volunteers take advantage of an old building to practice their water spraying skills.

From fires to car wrecks, in case of emergency the volunteers of South Whidbey Fire/EMS are the first in line.

It takes dedication and training by the district’s first responders, and the department leadership ensures that the men and women of the South Whidbey fire district are not only technically equipped with what it takes, but that the human factor is atop of its game as well.

Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said there is no difference between what a volunteer and career firefighter or EMT needs to know.

“The job is the same, the risks are the same, and the outcomes of an incident depend entirely on how that knowledge is applied,” he said. “We function at a high level and provide a high level of service to our community, no matter the type of call.”

South Whidbey volunteers are answering an average of five emergency calls per day. In 2011, the department responded to 1,867 emergency requests including fire, medical, marine and high angle rescue calls.

The fire district is keeping the community and its volunteers safe by requiring extensive training.

Once a volunteer completes the fire or EMT academy after about 150 hours of training, they must maintain their skills with ongoing training. Routine training touches on each of the skill sets, from patient care to driving an engine and or firefighting to technical rescue. Throughout the past year, the district has staged structure fires and rescue scenarios to get veterans and rookies ready for the real deal.

And that’s only the beginning. Specialized training includes marine rescue, technical high angle rescue, leadership training, driving, equipment use and more, Palmer said.

When it comes to a real emergency, it is important to keep calm and in control.

“A successful emergency response is a well-choreographed event,” Palmer explained.

Palmer said members must know a great deal in order to function at a high level and in stressful, dangerous scenarios.

Every response to a call is additional training.

“We practice on every call we get,” Palmer said. “Probably the most obvious incidents where the training pays off are structure fires. Because we have so few, like most fire departments, the stakes are very high, as are the risks.”

The more calls a volunteer responds to, the better.

“In order to safely conduct our operation on a structure fire, everyone needs to fall back to how they were trained,” Palmer said. “There are myriad of jobs that need to be accomplished and not a lot of time to think about them, so that is where training takes over.”

Palmer is proud to see his volunteers in action.

“I have seen our folks fight fire time after time where work just happens without verbal direction,” Palmer explained. “Fire is extinguished, the building is vented, teams enter and exit together, and eventually the incident is over. The hallmark of a successful training program is that citizens are protected and firefighters/EMTs go home without injury.”

The department relies almost entirely on volunteers and its leadership believes it is an investment in public safety to ensure each volunteer gets the training and support they need.

“We are publicly funded through property taxes and without that we would not exist,” Palmer explained. “We struggle now with the economy just as everyone does because when property values decline, so do our revenues.  We are a mostly volunteer service, but volunteers are not free.”

Palmer said he is grateful for the community’s support of the levy increase in the general election. But voting isn’t the only way to help.

“Often times one of the best ways for our community to support our volunteers who collectively give an average of 25,000 hours a year, is to simply recognize them, say thank you to them, and respect their contribution to making our community a better place to live and visit. You would be surprised how far those simple things go with our folks,” he said.


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