Written by Bill Ritchey —
Realistic Training for Real Emergencies
MADERA COUNTY — On a Sunday morning in March, the time had come for twelve Madera County Fire Department Paid Call Firefighter (PCF) recruits to finally get their hands dirty.
Nearly halfway through their 200-hour academy, they gathered at a Madera wrecking yard among dozens of mangled cars. Their mission: acquiring the basic skills of auto extrication using common hand and power rescue tools.
Responding to motor vehicle accidents is one of the primary missions of all firefighters, and though the ambulance may be on the way, anyone trapped in a wrecked vehicle is going to need the skills of firefighters to be extricated before medical aid can be rendered in a meaningful way.
The morning began with a huddle led by Training Captain (CPT) Anthony Garcia. The captain explained a few rules, beginning and ending with personal safety.
During all training activities recruits were required to wear full protective gear — turnouts, helmets, face shield, boots, and gloves. Although it was just training, the wrecked vehicles and power tools could inflict the force of thousands of pounds, causing severe injury or death. CPT Garcia emphasized, “Speak up, ask your instructors if you’re not sure about something, and stay safe!”
The plan for the day was laid out. In the morning, recruits were to rotate through various teaching and practice stations: vehicle shoring and stabilization, extrication tools including the “Jaws of Life” hydraulically powered spreader/cutter tool, and raising vehicles with compressed air rescue bags and cribbing.
Academy Instructors… local firefighters “giving it back”
The day’s training activities were also supported by Madera County Fire/Cal Fire instructors Captain Vance Killion, and Fire Apparatus Engineers Daniel Valenzuela and Neal Tito. PCF Paul Shafer from Bonadelle Co. 19 provided support with rescue equipment from Squad 19.
The instructors’ teaching styles shared similarities, consistent with the way they had been taught in their careers. First, clear and concise instruction followed by skill demonstration. Then, return demonstration of knowledge and skill by the recruit. Finally, completion of the learning process consisted of evaluation, feedback, and encouragement. This process repeated over and over throughout the day, with each skill and with each PCF recruit.
The comradery among the instructors was an energy that could be felt, not just heard, and I asked Engineer Tito about that bond.
Tito explained that all four instructors began their careers as young firefighters working together as Madera County PCFs. All went on to become firefighters with Cal Fire. All have returned to Madera County to make their homes, raise their families, and serve the citizens of Madera County as Cal Fire personnel assigned to Madera County Fire Department (although Tito is currently assigned to neighboring Merced County Fire Department, after being assigned to Madera County).
On this day, Tito was volunteering his off-duty time to train new Madera County PCFs.
He challenges the notion that local PCFs use the training simply to get hired by Cal Fire and leave the community. That notion is clearly debunked by Valenzuela and his brethren firefighters.
“I want to give back to my community and help train new PCFs,” said Tito, emphasizing the critical role PCFs perform in the rural communities as the sole responders. They often serve as back-up to the career Cal Fire staff and routinely respond alone, as Madera County is only funding one firefighter on an engine.
Putting it all together…
After a morning of emphasizing individual familiarization and practice with rescue tools, the recruits broke for lunch. Upon their return, another huddle was called by CPT Garcia.
The mostly “twenty somethings” were given their orders: one PCF recruit would lead a team of two or three others, and extricate a “victim” (a mannequin of human size and weight) from a wrecked vehicle, simulating the performance of an engine company of firefighters.
Garcia gave pointed commands: Approach from the front so the patient can see you, do a 360 degree walk around sizing up the situation and hazards.
“Always have an escape route,” Garcia cautioned as he reminded the recruits to incorporate their emergency medical training for trauma and remember the “Golden Hour.”
For best odds of survival, Garcia explained, the patient needs to be at a trauma center within one hour from the time of the accident. The victim’s survival will depend on their skill and efficiency.
The recruits were then split up into teams to begin their practical simulations. At the vehicle stabilization drill, a sedan was rolled precariously onto its side. It must be stabilized to prevent any further movement that would endanger the victim or rescuers as they work to extricate the individual.
CPT Killion asked for a recruit to volunteer to serve as team leader. Without hesitation, Morgan Mayer, a recruit from Station 8 (Chukchansi) stepped up to the challenge.
Mayer, having worked last fire season for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter, hopes to one day work as a career firefighter for Cal Fire.
“I like the aspect of helping others,” Mayer said. He particularly likes the varied, “all risks” duties of Cal Fire, from wildland to urban structural firefighting, hazardous materials incidents to technical rescue. Mayer looks forward to his new PCF duties at Station 8.
Mayer received his assignment from Killion, and was then told to, “Get at it.”
Taking charge of the incident, Mayer directed each member of his team — two fellow PCF recruits and two Fire Explorers (high school students) from Station 19 — through their assignments, as they set up struts and anchoring straps to ensure the vehicle was stable.
When the vehicle was successfully stabilized, Mayer and his team regrouped with Killion for a critique, learning their strengths as well as what they could do better next time.
Their next assignment was rescuing a victim from under the wheel of a wrecked vehicle. Building upon their skills, they were presented with another scenario, and another size-up.
This time Mayer and his team utilized rescue air bags — large expandable bladders filled with compressed air — and cribbing, which consists of large wooden blocks. They use the bladders to incrementally lift the vehicle off a trapped victim, then shore it up with the blocks.
It’s a methodical process, requiring constant monitoring and evaluation to be done safely. Mayer and his team were successful. After the victim was freed, they went to work assessing injuries, stabilizing the spine, and preparing for evacuation.
As the day drew to a close, smiles and a sense of accomplishment were visible as the recruits were one step closer to serving as Paid Call Firefighters.
This article is the second in a series describing recruitment, training, and deployment of Madera County Paid Call Firefighters.
Editor’s note: This series and others from Bill Ritchey will be exploring the challenges, current conditions and potential solutions to the issues facing the Madera County Fire Department. Bill is a resident of Raymond. With a Masters of Science degree in Nurse Anesthesia, he has been an anesthesia provider for 21 years, and has worked extensively providing trauma and critical care anesthesia at the regional trauma center in Fresno. He is very involved in advocacy for local emergency services, and helped formulate policy for pre-hospital advanced life support by ambulance personnel and fire department first responders in Madera County. He also served as a first responder trainer for Madera City and County Fire Departments.