From street names to anthrax, a firefighter's training never ends

Huntington firefighters practice extinguishing a flaming LP tank during a drill held Thursday, Feb. 12, at the South Side Fire Station on Etna Avenue.
Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Feb. 19, 2009.

Back in the old days, they'd sit around at the station, talking about the best ways to put out a fire.

"They had ‘Red Books' that would have subjects to talk about," Huntington Fire Department Lt. John Keiser says. "We'd read the articles and take written tests."
Not any more.

Now, the training is hands on and non-stop.

Earlier this month, for example, all 41 Huntington firefighters took turns knocking down flames shooting from an LP gas tank, similar to the tanks sitting outside many rural homes. While the flames were real, the situation was controlled. It was a drill, taking place behind the South Side Fire Station on Etna Avenue.

And while this drill probably attracted the attention of more than a few neighbors, the constant training by city firefighters more often than not goes unnoticed.

"We do something every day," says Firefighter Mark Landrum. "It's not always something big."

CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) was on the schedule for this week, Keiser says. Training continues, though, whether it's formal or informal.

"You can always train on streets," Landrum says from the kitchen of the Condit Street station, where a giant map of the city and surrounding areas is taped to the wall. "What's the fastest way to get to Joe Street from here?
"There's radio training. There's any number of things, up to the major stuff."

But every once in a while, the department gets the chance to train big.

That was the case the week of Feb. 9, when the department got to use a mobile hazardous materials training facility on loan from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. The mobile unit was equipped with props that let firefighters practice encapsulating themselves in protective suits, stopping leaks in pipes, handling leaking chlorine canisters, dealing with rail tank cars, rescuing people trapped in tight spaces and more.

"A lot of the training is toward stuff we don't do real often," says Fire Lt. Keith Paterson. "Our specialty is firefighting."

However, he adds, firefighters never know when they're going to encounter the out-of-the-ordinary.

The department tends to train on "whatever's hot" at the moment, he says; a few years ago, the "hot" thing was anthrax.

"We have department training twice a month, and each station trains about every other day," Paterson says, so that they're ready to handle whatever hazard comes their way.

As far as hazards go, firefighters say, an everyday passenger vehicle is at the top of the list.

"The most common thing is the car going down the road with gas in it," Paterson says.

"You don't know what's in there," Keiser adds. "They could have propane; it could be a rolling meth lab."

"And who knows what's under the kitchen sink or out in the garage?" Paterson says.

Keiser's 32 years on the fire department makes him the most experienced member of the crew.

Training in earlier years, he says, consisted mainly of traveling to a weekend training session staged by the State Fire Marshal's Office (the forerunner of Homeland Security).

While larger communities had their own training academies, he says, "Our city can't afford that."

During those training sessions, firefighters learn how to ventilate a building, what strategies and tactics to use when attacking a fire, how to investigate a fire, how to lay fire hose and more.

Keiser can tell you what kind of trusses are in different buildings around Huntington, how each type of truss is affected by fire, and the dangers of each type of truss.

Keiser and fellow firefighter Rob Miller once attended a training session on dealing with nuclear bombs, even though the possibility of a nuclear bomb hitting Huntington is probably remote.

But local firefighters may be called on to deal with nuclear waste traveling through the community on trucks and trains, or waste from medical radiation procedures being transported by van.

"It's around more than you think," Keiser says. "It's always nice to have the training behind you, just in case. It's cheap insurance.

"You train for stuff you hope you'll never have to use."