West Suburban Fire Academy prepares firefighters in Plymouth, Golden Valley, Maple Grove, New Hope and Crystal
By Kristen Miller
Thirty-nine paid on-call rookie firefighters recently graduated from the West Suburban Fire Academy, making it the largest class in its 11-year history.
Formed in 2006, the West Suburban Fire Academy includes four west suburban fire department – Plymouth, Golden Valley, Maple Grove and the West Metro Fire District, which includes Crystal and New Hope.
The four departments decided to take the initial training and education of a firefighter “to a whole new level,” by keeping the training in-house and utilizing qualified instructors, explained Plymouth Battalion Chief Blaine Duncan, who has been teaching in fire academy for the last decade. This was his second year as lead instructor.
Now, the four departments have the primary responsibility for coordinating student activities and training for the academy and alternate locations for classroom and hands-on training.
“What we found as academy instructors, most firefighters learn the best with hands-on training versus sitting in a classroom staring at Powerpoints,” Duncan said.
Training starts mid-January and runs until June and rookies attend class two nights a week and some Saturdays, equating to 200 hours of classes.
The rookies learn such things as search and rescue skills, identification and monitoring of hazardous materials, handheld radio usage, and Rapid Intervention Team skills. The RIP crew’s sole purpose is to rescue firefighters in need rather than fight fires.
Upon graduation, students received certifications in Firefighter I and Firefighter II training as well as hazardous materials operations.
The ceremony was June 15 at the Plymouth Creek Center. One of the graduates from Golden Valley, who was overseas at the time, even Skyped in so she could be a part of the important ceremony.
The academy is a unique concept that is inspiring other departments around the Twin Cities to start training in-house rather than contracting with local community and technical colleges to provide the firefighter training, Duncan explained.
“Even though the fire academy only runs six months out of a year while in class, the four lead instructors work on this program to make it better year-round,” Duncan said.
Duncan explained that the fire service “very much in a time of change with new technology and advancement in fire research, but the core competencies of our training has remained the same over the years.”
From thermal energy cameras to the latest and greatest self-contained breathing apparatus, “the challenge for us is to stay on top of that technology and make sure it’s getting into the students’ hands,” Duncan said.
Academy graduation is not the end of firefighter training. All rookies will go on to either Emergency Medical Responder or Emergency Medical Technician training in the fall and then Fire Apparatus Operations, learning how to drive the truck, in the spring. From there, the firefighters can go into specializations, such as technical rescue and/or leadership training. Also, each department has ongoing weekly trainings.
“They’re all riding trucks and performing duties of full-fledge firefighters at this point” under direct supervision from their fire officer or senior firefighter, Duncan said.
While the average class sizes is between 18-24, the departments this year had a major push to add paid on-call staff, and the 39 students was the outcome of a successful hiring initiative, Duncan noted.
“I was incredibly happy with the way this class turned out this year. I have no doubt they will all make great firefighters and I can’t wait to see where their fire service careers lead them,” Duncan said.
A wide variety of people choose to become firefighters, coming from a variety of career backgrounds, including lawyers, engineers, school teachers and police officers, Duncan explained. “The majority want to give back to the community,” he said. “They want to do something good, become a part of a group that is looked upon in a time of need.”
Recent fire academy graduate Kira Vanderlan of Plymouth has a passion for public service, having worked for various nonprofits over the years, as well as the federal government. Upon moving to Plymouth, she began serving on one of the city’s committees where she heard about the paid on-call firefighter role.
She decided to attend the firefighter recruitment open house last June and had the chance to ride along on a fire call, where she saw the fire department in action.
“There is great value in working with firefighters from Golden Valley, Maple Grove, New Hope … because we will see each other on the fire ground at mutual aid events and we will know that we’ve all received the same outstanding training,” Vanderlan said. “It is comforting to know that these men and women have my back.”
“The academy was such a fun, challenging and rewarding experience,” said Vanderlan. “It is also quite a bonding experience among all the rookies. I’ve made lifelong friends.”
Recent graduate Drew Aadalen is a full-time IT specialist who was looking for another challenge and knew being a paid-on-call firefighter would be very rewarding.
“The fire department helped me once, and even though it was just a regular call for them, I was so impressed by the way they responded, and the teamwork they displayed to get the job done. Their selfless actions made a big impact on me,” Aadalen said. “I wanted to be the guy who answered the call when people needed help the most. The fire department is a big team, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
What surprised Aadalen the most about the training was how quickly the class bonded.
“They are the one of the best groups of people I have ever had the privilege to work with,” he said. “Being a paid-on-call firefighter has been quite an adventure, and I will recommend it to everyone I talk to.”
An eye-opening aspect of the training to Vanderlan was the varied types of calls to which they potentially will respond.
“Communities should rest assured knowing how well-trained and prepared their first responders are and how eager they are to help others,” she said. “We realize that when we head out on a call,
we are often encountering people on their worst of days. That really challenges us to be our best and to serve the community in those moments.”
Each of the four departments have a combination of career and paid on-call firefighters.
Plymouth currently has about 60 paid on-call firefighters and 12 full-time fire employees. Maple Grove currently has 96 paid on-call firefighters supported by 11 career firefighters. The West Metro Fire and Rescue District has 57 paid on-call with seven full-time fire employees.
The Golden Valley Fire Department has 50 paid on-call firefighters and five full-time employees.