Wichita School Trains Firefighters From 7 States

The Wichita Eagle - September 13, 2009

by Rick Plumlee

Along the Oklahoma border about 130 miles southwest of Wichita, the town of Kiowa is served by an all-volunteer fire department with an 1985 model for its only truck.

One of those volunteers, Kyle Graves, was in Wichita Saturday attending the third annual, two-day fire school hosted by the Wichita Fire Department.

He came not only to improve his knowledge and skills but to take information back to his volunteer buddies in Kiowa.

"This is really important, said Graves, 23. "It's something we don't get to do very often.

"I'm getting hands-on training."

In fact, Hands on Training, or HOT, is the name of the school.

The 127 firefighters from seven states listened to a morning talk by Tony Tricarico, a 30-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department.

But they spent the afternoon in live action, learning and practicing such skills as safety and survival, forcible entry, truck and engine company operations, and search and rescue tactics. They'll practice more of the same today.

Most of sessions are conducted at the Wichita Fire Department Training Academy at 31st Street South and Oliver.

While wearing full gear, the firefighters rotated from one class station to another, as smoke and flames poured out of the academy's six-story, enclosed building.

Many of the participants were from small fire departments, but about 20 of Wichita's younger firefighters also attended to gain additional training. Wichita's veteran firefighters served as instructors.

Billy Wenzel, Wichita Fire Division chief for safety and training, said the school equips the firefighters to be safer and more efficient.

"No other city in the region has the resources — expertise, tools and equipment — to do this," he said, "so we should be leading the way.

"We owe it to the other communities. For us not to do it would be a crime."

Because the instructors volunteer, the cost for a firefighter to attend is only $40. That's far less than the $400 to $500 price tag to attend some of the nation's large fire-training schools, where the instructors are paid.

Capt. Sid Newby, a 28-year veteran of the Wichita Fire Department and HOT's lead instructor for engine company operations, said it's increasingly critical that firefighters train.

For a variety of reasons, including improved smoke detectors, he said there aren't as many fires as there were 20 years ago.

"But the fires are hotter because of all the plastics," Newby said, "and the buildings are more lightweight, so they collapse quicker.

"The way we get our experience now is to train."

He said the training available is also "light-years" ahead of what it was when he began.

A prime example is the realistic setting provided by the enclosed tower, which was built three years ago to replace an open structure.

"For some of these guys, this is the only interior operations with live-fire conditions they'll get," Newby said. "They might not have a $1 million truck company, but we can teach them to utilize what they have to the best of their ability."