The Path from Volunteer to Career!
Many people may not volunteer, because they simply don’t know what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter or how to go about it. Over the course of time there have been many changes to the world of volunteerism and I’m sure due to regulations and commitments of time and funding, it has become a hindrance for organizations to now gain prospective volunteers. The same is true, if not more, for fire districts. Because not only have regulations been added to the requirements, but there is a great deal of training to ensure the safety of firefighting personnel.
For the Northshore Fire District, they are always in search for good volunteers and over the years we have had some great community members who started out as volunteers and have come to be permanent paid firefighters on the team. The first part of the process following submitting an application as a Volunteer would be an interview with the Chief and then a scheduled physical exam and drug screening. Once successfully moving beyond these requirements, the recruit is provided a set of training personal protective equipment and the training begins.
Northshore Fire has a variety of task books for different roles and functions within the district, this will be the guide that enables both the recruit and the training officer to make sure all the necessary skills and exercises for training are completed. Typically, the recruit will be given a home station and will work alongside a Volunteer liaison who will report to the Training Officer on the status and progress of the recruit. As a recruit firefighter they will be allowed to attend training classes and drills only – nonemergency response.
The goal is to have the basic recruit firefighter task book completed within four months. Once this is done, the recruit will once again have an interview with the Chief and upon appointment as a Probationary firefighter, the training PPE will be exchanged for a full set of approved personal protective equipment. The probationary firefighters helmet will carry prominent marking or be of a distinctive color so as to identify the firefighter’s probationary status on the fire ground. As a probationary firefighter, they may now respond to emergency incidents under district guidelines and will be given a new task book to complete as a probationary firefighter, which shall be conducted in an annual academy unless the program is approved for in-house training. The probationary Firefighter training program is to be completed within one year.
Once the volunteer has completed the probationary firefighter task book, they are then issued a Firefighter I task book and this training is completed in-house utilizing approved instructors. Once all the terms of probation are completed: the probationary task book along with six months of experience in responding to emergency incidents, then the probationary Firefighter will be issued a certificate, badge and be sworn in as a Firefighter for the Northshore Fire Protection District.
So nearly two years into being a volunteer there is a lot that gets accomplished, the tasks books specify topics covering Station Orientation and Administration, General Safety, Vehicle Orientation, Radio’s, Hospitals & EMS, Ladders, Hose & Hydrants, Ventilation, Vehicle Accidents, Wildland Firefighting, Miscellaneous Training and Station Ride-a-longs.
Once a volunteer firefighter has completed all of the initial training and to maintain the basic level of training required each year, they will move on to the training record which will record all of the mandatory training required to remain as a Volunteer Firefighter with NFPD. Although, Northshore has revamped the training schedule to make completing the assignments at the convenience of the firefighter, it is still required that 100% of the minimum assigned trainings for the year get completed.
Although, becoming a firefighter has a lot of regulations to it, it is because it has a great deal of risk to the individual and we want them to remain as safe as possible doing the job. Over the years, the regulations governing how volunteers must be integrated into a fire crew and the necessary equipment and heavy demand for training that is requirement often makes it less desirable for an individual to volunteer, which is why there has been a dwindling number of persons who actually do volunteer.
For Northshore Fire District to hire someone as paid firefighting staff, the minimum requirement is for them to be at a level of Firefighter/EMT already, which you can see puts the district ahead by nearly two years (not including the EMT qualification). This isn’t to say that there is not value or need to have local volunteers, there absolutely is and we have had some excellent volunteers that have stayed with us for years and others that have come on and continued their careers here at Northshore Fire and earned advanced certifications and skillsets.
But remember volunteers can be of all varieties – it is knowledge and expertise that can help us improve the Northshore Fire District in many ways. Volunteers can learn to be firefighters as described above, or Volunteers might be instructors or trainers (or know how to coordinate and obtain instructors and/or trainers at minimal costs), they can be Support Team Members who help firefighters on scene with hydration, medical monitoring and SCBA exchange and/or refills, Volunteers could even be someone with expertise that is needed from time to time, such as a radio technician or a grant-writer or other such skill set that can help the district to achieve its objectives and goals. Ultimately, volunteers can make all the difference, so if you are interested in the Northshore Fire activities make sure to find out more…
We are fortunate in our Northshore Fire District that several of our existing team started out as volunteers and welcome that into the culture of the Northshore Fire District Team. Many others continue to be volunteers with Northshore Fire, even though they have careers in other fields or work for other agencies, this is their home and they also volunteer here. The bottom line is Northshore Fire has the heart of a volunteer organization and has a dedicated team servicing the citizens' call for help. They consistently strive to improve the defense and protection of our communities on the North Shore of Clear Lake. There are many ways to join the volunteers in action at Northshore Fire.
The Mechanics of Things....
We have talked a lot about the age of the Apparatus fleet of the Northshore Fire District and how vehicle age can lead to more costly repairs and other challenges, so we thought it would be good to talk with the mechanic, Gary Lancaster, whom Northshore Fire has contracted with over the last year and a half to understand a little more about this topic. There’s been a lot of work on each of the vehicles to get them to a level that can be regularly maintenance. He has been fixing the vehicles to the point where they can come into the shop at a typical service cadence of once a year for inspection and maintenance, the exceptions would be when there is more than 5000 miles per year or some reported issue from the crews about the vehicle.
Many engines or vehicles sit in the station without use for long periods of time and some others are mostly used for transport, meaning they go to a call and then right back to the station. We wondered how much wear and tear both situations would actually put on a vehicle. When a vehicle sits for longs periods of time, seals can get hard and brittle which could causes leaks (engine oil, axle, wheel seal or transmission leaks). For trucks that go to a call and back, there is still surprisingly a lot of wear and tear that happens. When you think about it, when our firefighters get a call they jump into the truck fire it up and immediately go out running it wide open (Code 3), this also means that usually the brakes get used harder as well, so clearly an impact on the life of the vehicle and its’ parts. If they get called to a fire event the vehicles are usually sitting in extreme conditions where there is a lot of heat. In fact, last year there was one engine that was near the scene and a spark fired up and got in the frame rail and melted an AC line, the crew lost the air in the truck and Gary had to repair the line. There have been other issues due to heat related exposure too and sometimes just being in extreme heat can require a part to be replaced as it gets compromised in such conditions.
Gary provided another example to further explain how just responding to a call can have an impact: “I had one engine that came in and the brake lining looked good at first, but it had gotten hot and the lining was cracked, so we had to go ahead and put new drums and shoes on that truck, and once I took the drums off I saw that they were glazed over and also had heat cracks in them, so they were replaced too. Because of what the engines have to do and the elements they get exposed to, you will see things like that, and I’ve seen that happen on vehicles with only 20,000 miles as well as 100,000 miles.”
There is not only mechanical work that needs to be done, but lots of electrical work on each of the rigs as well because there are so many gauges and lighting indicators that are embedded in the control panels that the Fire Apparatus Engineer (FAE) needs to operate the pumps on the engine when it is on scene. This complicates the repair a bit as it requires more investigation as to what is wrong and may be more complex. Currently, there a vehicle at the Lucerne Station that has the reverse lights and backup buzzer blowing fuses, Gary obtained the wiring diagram for it and was working on fixing it a couple of weeks ago. We asked how often things like that happen and his response was that he actually sees lots of wiring issues because the wiring would get bad or it would rub on a frame and short something out. Gary talked about another repair, where it was described that the pump would disengage and quit working and then all of a sudden it would work again just fine, after checking it out, he finally found the problem was a worn out wire that had been shorting-out and was kicking the pump in and out.
When Gary does maintenance and repairs to the pumps on the trucks, he says they work mostly like an auxiliary engine and some of the common repairs that he has had are when sensors in the tanks are not working. These sensors measure whether the pump is full or not, but if it keeps reading the same level all the time, then it’s likely the tank gauge may be bad. Often times he has to spend a lot of time and effort to figure out the issue – is it a short or faulty wiring or is it a pump or gauge that needs to be repaired or replaced.
The biggest challenge with older engines is simply the ability to locate parts, especially since there are some parts that are obsolete now due to the age of the vehicle. On a water tender they had a tank issue and because the parts were obsolete the district had to wait about 6-7 weeks for a tank sensor and panel gauge to get built and then when it arrived there was still some modifications that needed to be done. So, this creates a duration of time when the vehicle is not in service while we wait for the part(s). But this isn’t just for our very old engines, in fact Gary mentioned that obsolete parts can happen as soon as 15 years, there may be places that still have the parts, but the manufacturer is not making them anymore and this starts to make them cost more.
Bringing in a fire truck even just for an oil change, filter change or inspection is not an easy task as you still have to jack up the front end, check the king-pins make sure everything is good, check all the bearings and spin the wheels, adjust the brakes, and look at the brake lining itself. The tools necessary to do this job are pretty vast and Gary has to use a lot of specialized equipment. For instance, to conduct a diagnosis of the vehicles, he utilizes software which has to be updated every year. When he plugs a truck into the software it reports on everything (called multiplexing). When it connects everything communicates to each other: the engine, the tranny, the brakes, and light modules.
Depending what type of truck it is or parts it has it each may require different software for diagnosis, so you could have a fleet of trucks and have a need for ten different software packages, last year to cover the fleet at Northshore, just the upgrade to current software packages alone was about $10,000. Then there is a yearly subscription. But Gary also utilizes online manuals that get updated daily. This helps him when there are any changes or new parts. In addition, to the physical work of maintaining the fleet, he does a lot of research and reading to stay up with the parts and technology of apparatus vehicles, all updates and improvements that are being made in the industry and if he cannot figure something out he will make calls to the manufacturer to get something resolved.
My final questions to Gary was about the different types of vehicles we have and did he see more of one than another or other types of facts of the fleet. As an example, in the shop the day that I stopped by Gary was working on Water Tender (WT) 7511. This is a 2009 vehicle and it carries 2,000 gallons of water, I asked if that created some additional concerns for that truck. He said because of the weight the truck has some sway bar front shocks, sway bar bushings, torque rod bushings, that all have to be inspected well. The importance of these parts for a vehicle carrying this much weight is that it helps to keep the vehicle’s body from rolling as it navigates turns.
How do they evaluate when an apparatus vehicle needs to be surplused (equipment that has become obsolete, worn out, broken/damaged or is no longer needed by the district)? Typically, when the cost to repair the apparatus keeps adding up, along with a probable duration of how long it can continue to be used, and the likelihood of more recurring issues outweighs the value of keeping it in service. Many of our vehicles, you can tell that mechanically they are old and getting to where they need to be replaced, but most often it is the Medic Units that come in for service, simply because they get the most mileage even though they are younger vehicles, but they need to come in for oil changes, tires, and brakes.
All tires on the apparatus vehicles have a date expiry code on them for when they have to be replaced. It is a legal requirement to replace them, whether or not they are still good tires. On average the cost to replace a tire is about $1000 each and most engines have 8 – 10 tires, so even that can get pretty expensive in the cost of maintenance. Newer vehicles will still have regular maintenance either yearly or twice a year, but sometimes there may be little issues or factory bugs that have to be worked through, occasionally, there will be some minor maintenance, but not really anything major repair for the first five years.
I want to thank Gary for taking the time to share his knowledge with all of us and for keeping our fleet safe and on the road for our firefighters!
The Cost to Outfit a Firefighter.....
In addition to standard Northshore Firefighter uniforms and badges the NorthShore Fire District is required to outfit each Firefighter with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to lessen the risks encountered by Firefighters while engaging in suppressing fires. All gear must meet current Federal and State Fire standards.
There are two different types of turnouts (also known as PPE clothing kits). One kit is specific for structure fires and another kit used in fighting wildland fires.
Besides a radio, the general PPE items for structure fires that are Issued to every firefighter are: gloves, boots, pants, coat, hood, and helmet. Additionally, inside a structure fire the firefighter would need a flashlight and a SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) air pack. The helmet provides protection from falling objects and protecting the overall head of the firefighter. Under the helmet they now where a hood, which provides protection of the lower part of the head, neck and face.
The Turnout Coat and Pants are made of Nomex a material that is fire resistant and is constructed of three (3) layers (an outer shell, moisture barrier and a thermal barrier). They are usually heat resistant up to certain temperatures and do not allow moisture in or out.
Gloves provide protection for picking up hot objects, crawling around on the floor, along with handling tools.The boots are steel toed boots to protect from falling or sharp objects along with water.
The SCBA tank and Mask provides air for the firefighter to go in to the burning structure where it is overcome with smoke, essentially this is the air for the firefighter to breath, the Mask allows the firefighter to breath the supplied air and not the smoke or other nasty byproducts in the room.
Since Northshore is an All-Risk Agency and our district has a great deal of Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), our crews carry with them at all times, not only their gear for Structure Fires, but also their Wildland fire PPE kits as well. Wildland Gear consisting of pants and jackets made from Nomex (special fire-resistant material), a pack with fire shelter, leather gloves and boots, a helmet with shroud and goggles.
Although some of the gear is named the same from Structure to Wildland fire types, the gear itself is very different, so the same boots, gloves, etc… do not cross-over as they are made from different materials for the type of exposure that each type of fire event creates for the firefighter.
For Wildland fire the hardhat and goggles provide protection from falling objects along with general protection of the head and eyes, the shroud also helps protect the head from heat and smoke to a certain level. The Nomex coat and pants are flame-resistant material and has a thermal protection while the Leather gloves will provide some protection from the heat, the natural environment, and allows the fire fighter to grip on tools. The boots provide protection from the heat and natural environment as well as ankle support, since often the firefighter may be traversing rough terrain. Each Firefighter will carry a pack that has some tools and supplies in it, but the most important thing that is attached to their pack is the Fire Shelter – this is the last resort for a firefighter or crew that has been overtaken by fire. Essentially, this is a large aluminum foil shelter that protects up to around 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
As you can readily see the cost to outfit a firefighter is not insignificant. For just one firefighter, besides their normal Northshore uniforms, it costs $11,107 per firefighter to have just one set of each type of PPE gear required for them to engage in either a Structure or Wildland Fire. Ideally, the firefighter should have two sets of wildland fire and one structure fire set at a minimum. The shelf life for most PPE clothing items is 10 years. Although, even new gear that is subject to a serious fire event can require immediate replacement. Northshore is not usually capable of supplying firefighters with a second set of turnouts, and most of our firefighters take very good care of their kits in order to extend their use beyond the 10-year service life.
Our district does have one Turnout Extractor (which is an extremely heavy-duty washer) that will clean PPE clothing; however, there is only one across the entire district so not convenient or always available for big events, but still is heavily used by the team, which puts a lot of wear and tear on equipment that is already years old.
As you can see these are not one-time expenses but on-going as gear wears out or gets damaged in a fire, equipment becomes obsolete as technology changes and new fire standards are adopted. Even with limited the gear that is purchased, there is still a substantial need to have the equipment in our stations that will enable our firefighters to be able to clean their gear properly too.
The Power of One…
When Northshore attempted a ballot measure last year, one of the objectives then and is still a goal, is to staff the Northshore Fire Station in Upper Lake with someone 24/7. Over the last year, that station has been staffed Monday – Friday from 8am to 5pm. But this is not the only staffing needs that the District has, as one of the objectives for Measure N, it will be necessary for the Northshore Fire District to be able to hire and retain firefighters. This objective can be met in a variety of ways. Any good staffing strategy should include outreach into several avenues of recruitment, an environment of professional standards and with competitive wages and if possible, incentives for performance or training, and the opportunity for building unique expertise, leadership skills, and advancement.
Many have put forth the questions: “One person? What can one person do?”
So, I thought that this would be an excellent question to explore and since I am not a first responder, I asked for assistance and expertise from a couple of members of the Northshore Fire District team: Battalion Chief, Dave Emmel and Firefighter/EMT, Ron Valadez. Their collective experience not only answers this question in depth but provided a great deal of insight into just how much firefighters and emergency personnel can do when approaching and establishing a scene.
First of all, one firefighter can do a lot more than most people think. They have the ability to collect as much information as possible for the incoming crews. With Fire Calls, the single first responder can determine whether or not the full response of the dispatch is needed. This is huge and crucial in a district that has limited resources, as it allows extra units to be cancelled freeing up emergency units and crews sooner to respond to other calls. Of course, on the flip side it can also allow for a request for more units and crews so that they get rolling to the scene quicker.
With medical calls, any Northshore Fire Responder can immediately begin life-saving procedures such as CPR. If it is a fall, they may be able to lift them. If it is not that critical, they can begin to acquire vitals of the patient and again cancel the medic unit responding which keeps those resources available. Essentially, having one person in the Northshore Station @ Upper Lake on a 24/7 shift gives the surrounding communities the peace of mind that someone with training is at their emergency sooner than they would arrive when the station is unstaffed. Every second counts and the sooner someone arrives to the scene the better, even if it is only one person.
Let’s break this down a bit more – besides what one first responder can do, what do they do when they are first on scene?
Well, when one firefighter is the first on scene of a fire, they will always size up the scene, and can affect a quick rescue of any occupants. Probably, the most important thing that needs to be done at a scene! Next the responder will establish a water supply, secure utilities, and quickly get water on the fire from the outside to keep the fire in check until more resources arrive. And finally, if still alone on the scene, the responder must establish command of the scene and order appropriate resources, if necessary.
But what if it is a medical call? Well, the good news is that the minimum hiring qualification at Northshore is a Firefighter/EMT, which means they are skilled up on BLS, or Basic Life Saving fundamentals. So, when a firefighter/EMT arrives as the first and only one on scene, they will immediately conduct a patient assessment, and if necessary, quickly begin CPR and/or administer emergency oxygen. Time is very important when an unconscious person is not breathing, in fact permanent brain damage begins after only 4 minutes without oxygen. This first responder can secure airways and start rescue breathing and start early defibrillation, but many medical calls are not this critical and with the ability to conduct all basic life support functions, they can administer Epinephrine for allergic reactions, control bleeding if there are cuts and lacerations, and handle a number of other types of medical situations.
Northshore Fire is capable of BLS and ALS response. Advanced Life Support (ALS) functions are possible when a paramedic is on scene and if they are the first to arrive, they can do all of the things that a Firefighter/EMT can do, which is all the life-saving skills, as well as, they can complete a more advanced assessment of the patient, begin cardiac monitoring, conduct IV therapy, and administer medication.
The power of one…first responder can save a life. What we need to do as citizens is to make sure that the Northshore Fire Protection District is equipped and funded to meet their objectives of Measure N. This will provide us more “ones” (Firefighters/EMTs and Paramedics) that will respond when needed. We want to make sure that Northshore Fire can hire and retain staffing and that they have the necessary training, appropriately compensated and provided opportunities here.
One District - One Purpose: The Northshore Fire Protection District has become more and more engaged with the communities throughout the Northshore. They have done this with various community events, attending Town Hall meetings and keeping the public updated with various safety announcements and interacting with individuals with questions about PG&E shutoffs, weed abatement, Fire Prevention Efforts, Defensible space, and much more. As Northshore Fire Chief, Mike Ciancio has stated many times..."it takes a village", which is a call to action for all of us to do what we can along with our Northshore fire protection district to make ourselves, our homes, and our communities accessible, safer, and better defended against the risks we face in Lake County, CA.
It's time to do our part … so what can we do as citizens to help Northshore Fire help us? Well, it can begin with getting to know our Northshore Fire Protection District better and those that work hard to provide these services to us. Next it's participating in the preventative efforts that need to get done. Learning how to prepare for Wildfire is part of the process and this entails keeping vegetation limited around our homes so they cannot easily ignite and reach our livable space, changing our landscape and maintenance in a way that will reduce ember ignitions, with things like trimming tree branches hanging over our homes, porch or decks. Furthermore, if we are building new or repairing/replacing elements of our home, using fire-resistive construction materials such as: Class A fire-rated roofing products, fire-resistant siding like brick, fiber-cement, plaster or stucco, and even dual-pane tempered glass windows that would provide our homes with the most safety from stray embers and radiant heat. We should also remember that we should never store flammable materials underneath decks or porches and that any dead vegetation and debris is removed from underneath and between deck board/joints.
Emergency preparedness does not just mean wildfire preparation, but also making sure that our Northshore Fire team can get to us in an emergency, whatever it might be and that calls for access and planning. First, ensure that your neighborhood and home have legible and clearly marked street names and numbers. This is important so that emergency response to your calls for help happen quickly. Driveways should be at least 12' wide with a vertical clearance of 15' for emergency vehicle access. Also, for your family it is very important to develop, discuss and practice an emergency action plan with everyone in your home, which includes details for pets, large animals and livestock, and people. Make sure there are at least two known ways out of your neighborhood and have a pre-designated meeting place or point of contact to check in with.
Much of this information comes from Firewise USA, which is an organization that helps residents to impact their communities by reducing wildfire risks in their neighborhoods and engages them in working together on cleanup programs and best preventative practices. For more information on the checklist items I have mentioned above, please go to Firewise.org and become involved or lead the efforts in your area. This is how we make a difference!
We still need to look ahead on how we can prevent future risks and be ready for emergencies when they come. We were not able to successfully pass Measure “N” last year which would have helped support our Northshore Fire Team to have the firefighters and personnel on working engines with protective equipment to quickly respond when we need them. They have shown through their daily interactions in all of our communities, as well as their efforts on major incidents, that they are here for us. It does take a village, and each one of us should be looking at ways to improve our properties safety and in turn help the neighborhoods where we live.
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