BATTLE GROUND — Thirteen of Vancouver’s soon-to-be newest firefighters ventured north on Monday morning to torch an uninhabited home near the intersection of Southwest Scotton Way and state Highway 503.
It was one of the final training exercises for the recruits, who were hired with money from a $2.3 million federal grant to replace firefighters lost due to budget cuts. The extra bodies will make it possible for the Vancouver Fire Department to reopen Station 6 on Northeast 112th Avenue on Nov. 7. The station has been closed since Jan. 1.
“It’s a morale booster just to have a station back open that closed. It’s a morale booster to have new firefighters in the system,” Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina said.
In addition to the morale boost, Molina said the additional bodies and reopened station will allow the fire department to provide speedier service to residents, particularly in the area around the Burton-area station, and will decrease wear and tear on equipment and personnel.
But before that can happen, trainees need to be up to speed on firefighting techniques.
Battle Ground Public Works blocked off one southbound lane of state Highway 503 on Monday to make room for fire engines, towers and other vehicles to park on the sidewalk. Large orange signs told motorists that the column of white and sometimes gray smoke lingering in the area was a product of “Fire Training.”
Training captains briefed recruits and took the opportunity to quiz them on building construction knowledge they picked up in training.
Around 11:20 a.m., a captain started a blaze in a two-story section of the house using a flare. Then recruits and captains broke up into smaller units to practice responding. Firefighters vented rooms with fans, sprayed flames with hoses, and cut ventilation holes in the roof with power tools. Experienced firefighters walked them though the process.
“We choreograph all the moves. We plan what’s going to happen in all the rooms,” said Training Captain Frank Manza. The only difference between the training and a real fire, is that firefighters take their time and let flames rebuild so other groups can practice putting them out, he said.
“It’s fun to see it go off the way it’s supposed to,” he said.
The house is owned by the city of Battle Ground. It plans to use the lot to extend Southwest Scotton Way from Highway 503 to Southwest 20th Avenue. The two-lane road with a center turn lane will help relieve congestion on Main Street and Southwest Eaton Boulevard, said Scott Sawyer, Battle Ground public works director.
Sawyer was on site helping redirect traffic and observe the fire. Vancouver fire’s practice burn will save Battle Ground from spending thousands of dollars to demolish the home.
On a recent morning, recruits dressed in blue Vancouver Fire and Rescue exercise clothes sat in a classroom in the second floor of Station 5 in the Walnut Grove neighborhood. A firefighter was quizzing individuals on information on building construction; nozzle gallon flow and spray; fire engine statistics and what kind of ladder should be used to get on the roof of a single-story commercial building (the answer is a 35-foot ladder, by the way).
There’s a lot of science involved in fighting fires, Division Chief Steve Eldred said.
“It’s physics,” he said. “Fire is predictable, the building isn’t.”
When the recruits complete their training on Nov. 4, they will be assigned to different stations around town to free other firefighters to staff Fire Station 6, Eldred said.
The department likes to keep a list of potential employees at hand, Eldred said. When they knew the grant was a possibility, they built the list to make sure they could hire people right away.
Applicants must pass a written, physical and mental test. They then go through a skills assessment with the fire department, meet with a doctor for another medical and physical evaluation and have an in-person interview with the chief.
The department started with 494 potential recruits. Only 114 met the minimum requirements. Thirteen of those were hired, Chief Molina said.
Closing Fire Station 6 in the Burton area forced other stations to fill in the coverage gaps.
The department predicted the closure would add an average of 2.5 minutes to responses in the Station 6 area and 30 seconds to calls in the entire service area, Molina said. In the first six months of 2011, the response time was slower, but not as slow as predicted. Response times in the Station 6 area went up an average of 31 seconds and calls in the city went up 18 seconds, he said.
The closure also made units shift to cover the hole left in the east Vancouver area.
“When Engine 4 is out of Station 4, there is nobody at Station 4,” Molina said. If Station 4 responded to a call in Station 6’s area and another call came in Station 4’s area, another station would need to cover for Station 4, he said.
Using grant money to hire employees is a temporary fix to a long-term problem. The department will have 18 months to figure out how to keep the station open after the grant expires in two years, Molina said.
If a solution isn’t found, it is possible that the station would be closed again due to budget constraints.
In late August, the Vancouver City Council approved a labor contract with its firefighters’ union and agreed to accept a $2.3 million federal grant. The approval came on the heels of the city settling with its largest firefighting union — IAFF Local 452 — on a four-year contract that includes no cost of living raises for two years, followed by a 3.7 percent increase in 2012 and a 2 percent increase in 2013. It also took no cost of living increase in its 2009 bargaining agreement.
Union members have been working under the terms of their previous contract, which expired at the end of 2009, while leaders worked on a new deal.
The money will pay for the salaries of the 13 firefighters for two years, but requires that Vancouver keeps the same number of firefighters for the duration of the grant.
The new firefighters, classified as Fire 17, will be paid $4,776 a month and average a 49-hour work week, Molina said. That amounts to $57,312 a year.