By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE Guys crawl on their knees through a dimly lit maze.
A young woman helps lift a man far heavier than she, then carries him away.
A team of people hack at a metal door, prying it open with an ax.
“Your primary priority is?” comes the question, met with the shouted answer: “Personal safety!”
Class is in session at the Emergency Services Training Center in White Lake.
Surrounded by coils of hose emanating from half a dozen fire trucks, state fire instructors Brad Paddock, John Hauschild and Brian Soller observe their wards, giving directions only when needed.
“Check the door first.”
“Don’t waste your oxygen.”
“Carry him like this.”
The state curriculum known as Firefighter I has been offered for years to volunteers in the county, using state-paid locals to train their colleagues in everything from hose and ladder handling to Hazmat procedure.
But the training that just ended last month was still a notable first.
Typically, interested departments must send their new members to this basic-level course one to two nights a week, plus some Saturdays, for four to six months.
“That’s when people are available,” explained Paddock not just the students, who have work and family obligations, but the instructors, who have those same obligations, and the existing volunteer firefighters, who supply trucks and equipment for training.
So after getting a high level of interest from fire departments, in July the Sullivan County Bureau of Fire set up a 97-hour class that met just for that month.
What’s typically a part-time instructing job became closer to full-time, but people like Paddock who spends the rest of the year teaching at Liberty Middle School could absorb that commitment into their summer schedules.
“It’s intensive,” he acknowledged, “but students are telling me they’re satisfied with it.”
None of the 14 students had time for an individual interview in the middle of class, but on a short break, they all agreed that the compressed schedule is more difficult but far easier to incorporate into their lives even with 41 skill tests and two written tests.
“Instead of dragging it out, you get it done,” said one.
“The stuff stays in your mind better,” said another.
“You don’t have that week to forget,” added someone else.
Some of the older students took vacations from work to take the class, while others molded their lives around it, thanks to jobs with night and evening shifts.
Nine of the students, however, were college-age or younger including Austin Halchak, son of longtime Hurleyville firefighter and Deputy Fire Coordinator Jack Halchak.
“My son would never have been [otherwise] able to take this until he graduated college,” the elder Halchak related.
The class, he added, also helped reduce a waiting list of students.
“Thank God Brad took the lead,” Sullivan County Public Safety Commissioner and Fire Coordinator Dick Martinkovic related of the class’ chief instructor. “It’s very important we have new blood, and we’re very proud of the group there and pleased that the instructors were able to free themselves up.”
Paddock, who volunteers as the captain of the White Sulphur Springs Fire Department, seemed pleased as well.
“When we offer a class for 20 students and 26 sign up,” he observed, “I think that’s good.”
As with this class, not everyone sticks around to the end of the intensive, highly physical training, but the summer course’s success has all but guaranteed a repeat offering in 2012.
And in addition to the next regular-schedule class that started August 17, officials are looking into a one-night-a-week course for 27 weeks.
The demand is there, explained Fire Training Coordinator John Hauschild.
“Last year, 756 firefighters completed courses,” Hauschild said, “for a total of 13,258 hours.”
That’s counting every course the Bureau offers. Typically, Firefighter I itself is given three times a year.
“This year, we offered four,” Hauschild pointed out.