Picture yourself surrounded by smoke and darkness, with a heavy air tank on your back and a breathing mask over your face as you try to find your way to the door and safety.
That’s not a nightmare, just a description of a typical training scenario for firefighters.
Graham Vujcich, the new training officer for the Penticton Fire Department admits that some parts of firefighter training can be unnerving, but the point is to prepare crews for real world challenges, not to traumatize them.
“You build confidence in the gear they are wearing, the safety equipment, so they know they are safe. Once they know that, you can ramp the training up,” he said.
It’s all about adding to what he calls the firefighters’ toolbox, the skills and training they bring with them on the job.
“You want them to be able to think because things don’t go to plan at fires. There are new challenges all the time, so the better skill set you have to deal with them all, the better,” said Vujcich.
Though the training officer position Vujcich took on last month is new to the Penticton Fire Department, he isn’t. He’s been with the department since 1994 as a full-time firefighter, and as an auxiliary before that. But he has experience as a firefighter in New Zealand, and three years as an initial attack firefighter for the B.C. forest service.
“Training is kind of my passion and I have done a ton of it in the last 20 years. I am a first responder instructor and I have some part-time ambulance experience from a long time ago,” said Vujcich. “I use all that to help the guys on shift train.”
Along with adding two firefighters, council approved funding for Vujcich’s position last fall. The concept was to be able to offer more training in house for Penticton’s firefighters but also to work towards developing the existing emergency training centre into a full-fledged and accredited live fire training centre, serving the South Okanagan region.
There are several levels of firefighter training and certification, from basic up to the 10-01 professional qualification.
“We are hoping to fill the void for all of those as much as possible. What is happening now is guys are going away to secure that training to places like Texas or Alberta,” said Vujcich.
The North Okanagan Regional District fire training centre can provide some of the modules and refresher training, but having it available in Penticton saves money.
“What we have going is location. The Oliver department, if they go to Vernon for training, then they are looking at hotels and everything else. So it is kind of a no-brainer for them to come here, train and they can go home at night,” he said. “Before, we would be sending our guys out of town to train and they couldn’t do it on shift, so there is a huge cost savings that we can provide on shift training for our paid staff.”
Vujcich will also be drawing on specialists within the fire department to add to the training regimen.
“This isn’t really my job. This is our job as a department. We have high-angle rope technicians, we have all kinds of guys with specific training,” said Vujcich. “There is no point in me taking on high-angle rope rescue when we have guys that are way more qualified, and frankly, better at it, to help build that tool box.”
Taking on all the training, all the time would be an impossible job, according to Vujcich. His goal is to manage the training and get it pointed in the right direction.
Penticton has been working on their training facility behind the Dawson Avenue fire hall for a number of years, and Vujcich said it is also a group effort to keep it growing. B&L Machine shop is helping build a new burn prop, he said, and Penticton Towing regularly delivers vehicles for firefighters to cut up and practise extraction exercises on.
“We partner with a lot of people and we are looking to increase those partnerships,” said Vujcich. “It’s not only city money that is building this facility.”