“Red team’s going in!” barked the instructor in a gravelly voice.
Instantly, more than 20 firefighters from across the state, most of them dripping with sweat, fell silent and listened to him.
“Blue team is search-and-rescue and green team is back-up!” continued Neil Mohrman, the Jefferson City Fire Department Captain.
The firefighters, with city and county names like Independence, Callaway and Lake Ozark written across their backs, suited up and prepared to enter the three-story building full of flames known as the “Burn Building.”
Five minutes later they emerged, pulled off their oxygen masks and discussed the ups and downs of the drill. When they returned to the cool-down tent outside the Jefferson City Fire Training Center, they filled their water cups and medics checked their heart rates and blood pressures.
These exercises were part of the 75th Annual Summer Fire School and Midwest Wildfire Training Academy being hosted in Jefferson City. The events are a series of workshops organized by The Big Rivers Forest Fire Management Compact, a coalition of fire fighting agencies from Iowa, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois and the MU Fire Rescue and Training Institute, an MU extension program that offers continuing education to Missouri volunteer firefighters.
This year, roughly 1,000 people from fire departments around the Midwest are participating the event’s 40 classes, which combine hands-on training with classroom work. Class subjects include basic firefighting skills and the use of advanced computer-imaging technology.
The average class price hovered around $300 per student but MU FRTI spokeswoman Carmen Stanton said that most of the students’ agencies paid their tuitions.
Mohrman said that aside from the technical aspects of the courses, teamwork is the most important thing students learn.
“If they can work as a team with guys they’ve never met before, then they can bring that back and work out any kinks with their own department,” he said.
The workshops provide firefighters and volunteers from smaller fire departments with the opportunity to train using tools and facilities that aren’t normally available to them. Stanton estimated that 60 percent of the student-firefighters are volunteers.
Larger cities or regions like St. Louis, Kansas City, Jefferson City and Columbia rely on full-time staff and have greater resources to train and educate their firefighters.
But some experienced firefighters see the workshops as a way to hone their skills.
“Our department doesn’t require that we come down here, but we do it anyways to keep up,” said Chris Bingham, one of the five firefighters from Independence. On Wednesday, Bingham was one of the firefighters staging search-and-rescues and putting out flames in the “Burn Building” as part of the structural firefighting course.
The workshops are scattered throughout Jefferson City.
A few miles away from the structural fire class, firefighters in harnesses rappelled from the roof of the Jefferson City jail as part of the technical rescue course.
In view of the Capitol Building, rescuers in rubber boats made figure eights around bright orange buoys and pulled fake drowning victims out of the Missouri River.
Dozens of firefighters and volunteers signed up for the Boat Rescue Operator class. Jim Lavelley, owner of Rescue Canada Inc., a private, Vancouver-based company that specializes in water-rescue training, teaches the class with the help of experienced firefighters from St. Louis and Kansas City.
“It’s mostly to provide the volunteers with ongoing training,” said Lavelley.
For the first time Zodiac Boats sponsored the course and provided the student-firefighters with four inflatable rubber boats and a trailer full of equipment.
It’s the second time that Chris Swisher, a volunteer firefighter for the Boone County Fire Protection District, has taken the course to become a certified Rescue Boat Technician.
“Volunteers are not required to be certified,” he said. “But it’s important that some of us are so that we can help teach others.”
While the firefighters and volunteers are serious about the skills they are learning, they don’t deny that there is a fun aspect in most of the classes.
“It might look like we’re having fun, and we are,” said Brad Van Loo, a Jefferson City firefighter, “but we’re learning things to help the public at the same time.”