Niagara Gazette

June 19, 2013

Falls firefighters learn the skills needed to save themselves in times of trouble

Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — They are trained to save the lives of others.

Running into dangerous situations is just part of a firefighter's job.

"We're always trying to help people, that's what we're trained to do," Falls Fire Department Training Chief Mark Fontanella said. "But we have to keep ourselves safe too."

It was that concern, over how to keep firefighters safe on the job, that led the International Association of Firefighters, in 2007, to begin to formulate a program for what was called "fire ground survival." In short, Fontanella says, the idea was to create training that would help firefighters survive when "things go bad."

"It's called 'May Day' ( a universal distress call) prevention," Fontanella said. "It's about having better recognition of situations as they are going bad and how do we get out of dangerous or life threatening situations when things go bad."

The firefighters association wanted to create some standards for how to handle difficult predicaments, like being trapped by flames, falling through a floor or getting caught up in debris. After two years of work, in 2009, the association rolled out its new fire survival training program and began the process of teaching its techniques to firefighters across the United States and Canada.

Thanks to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant, the Falls Fire Department was able to bring that training to the Cataract city.

"We chose to do their 'train the trainer' program which teaches firefighters how to instruct their fellow firefighters in these techniques," Fontanella said. 

With a program designed for 30 students, the Falls Fire Department sent eight of its own members for training and "sold" the remaining slots to other area fire departments including those in Buffalo, Lockport and at the Falls Air Reserve Station. Other slots were taken by firefighters from as far away as California and Indiana.

"We were able to cover all the costs of the program and we acquired over $12,000 worth of (training) props to use in the future," Fontanella said. 

The trainers included three firefighters from the Phoenix Fire Department, as well as firefighters from Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Toronto. A number of the instructors had been involved in incidents where fellow firefighters died in the line of duty.

Fontanella said the trainees could tell their trainers spoke from deeply personal experiences.

"You could see the tears as they told their stories," Fontanella said. "When they spoke, they had your attention."

The training focused on recognizing trouble and both avoiding it or getting out of it. The trainees, who were primarily line officers, were taught what the firefighters under their command will be looking for in a time of crisis, what the officers can expect time to happen at that time and how to communicate the actions that need to be taken.

"That's the most important part," Fontanella said. "Knowing the techniques for escape and communicating them to the firefighters who are in danger."

The trainers learned how to breach walls to escape from one room to another and how to get out of entanglements created by debris. Now, Fontanella says, the eight newly minted Falls fire trainers will began teaching these survival techniques to all the members of the department.

"All our firefighters will have this training by the end of the year, it's that important," Fontanella said. "We have to teach our guys that it's OK to say 'May Day' and give us information on their situation and then we can get help to them."

The training chief said he believes the survival training will save firefighter lives.

"We want (firefighters) to know everything (they) need to know to be safe. We want their reactions to be second nature," Fontanella said. "When you have flames shooting just over your head, that is not the time to try to figure out what to do next. You need to know that."