County benefitting from hands-on fire training

In the 10 years Paul Soptick has trained firefighters in Firefighter I and Firefighter II classes, no students have been injured.

“In conglomerate with the University of Kansas, safety is of the upmost,” Soptick said. “There’s a strong emphasis on safety, and everything is very redundant-we have backups on top of backups.”

Soptick and wife Lisa are volunteer firefighters with Alexandria Township in Leavenworth County.

Both were training officers for the Firefighter I and II programs funded with a state grant through the University of Kansas.

“What we’re doing is we’re training (the students) to take their state certification,” Soptick said.

The recent Firefighter I program began in November and will end this month when students take their state-certification test. Those who pass will be nationally certified as entry-level firefighters.

Classroom work has been held at the Hillsboro Fire Department, which also has served as the host for the program.

During one training session on Feb. 2, students entered a mobile burn unit parked at Hillsboro Heights and faced fire and smoke in the red semi-trailer streaked with black burn marks from previous sessions.

As part of their training, they climbed a ladder on the trailer’s exterior, brought a hose through an opening in the top and drug it down a stairway.

“Coming down those steps, we’re simulating a basement entry,” Lisa Soptick said.

Students tested each tread to make sure it was solid and safe. At the bottom of the stairs, they crawled along the floor toward the fire set at one end of the unit.

There, they faced their nemesis.

“All the doors will be closed, and we let the fire build,” Lisa Soptick said. “It rolls back and looks like clouds of fire. We let them see what the water does to the fire. Then we let the smoke start rising again and let them hit it again. We’ll let them hit it a couple of times.”

The Firefighter I and II programs can be taken by students, such as those in the fire-service curriculum at KU. But the grant money is only offered to Marion County firefighters who are full-time, part-time or volunteer staff.

The current session included individuals from departments in Hillsboro, Marion, Durham and Herington.

Even area fire chiefs took advantage of what they could learn from the course. Fire chiefs Ben Steketee from Hillsboro and Pete Summerfield from Durham were enrolled.

“A lot of the fire chiefs like to have the certification through the University of Kansas for their people because it documents training hours,” Soptick said. “Training hours are a very important role within the fire service.”

The current grant came from the state and will end July 1.

“From what I’ve been led to believe, this will be a year-to-year grant,” Soptick said.

Before the grant became available, KU sent instructors to those departments requesting a training course.

The departments paid an hourly rate for the instructors’ time, and the cost for the certification test was $60 per student.

“At that time, the Kansas Fire Marshall’s office was picking up that test money,” Soptick said.

Today’s grant funding is a boon to all fire departments located in cities, townships and counties.

“The operating capital for a lot of these volunteer departments is very, very minimal,” Soptick said. “These grants are out here so we as instructors can go out and give the departments, if nothing else, the bare essentials.”

The National Fire Protection Association has set a minimum standard that everyone as a firefighter is required to know.

“When we teach Firefighter I, it is compliant to the NFPA standards,” Soptick said. “This is a complete curriculum.”

Classes met every weekend beginning in November-except for those falling on holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

About 11 students were enrolled on a full-time basis in classroom work; another group was on a part-time schedule.

In addition to the Sopticks, instructors were Tim Bettles from Herington, Lester and David Kaiser from Lincolnville and Terry Payne from Abilene.

The course involved classroom study and, on certain weekends, hands-on application called practical evolution.

The classroom work followed a book called “the Essentials of Firefighting.”

Students were schooled in such areas as fire behavior, classes of fires, protective clothing, portable extinguishers, ropes and knots, rescue and extraction tools, and building construction.

“We walked the main street of Hillsboro and identified the different types of construction,” Soptick said. “What they’re looking for is their fire attack, their safety and their vehicle safety.”

Practical evolution included training in propane-fed fires, physically tying knots, hoisting equipment, and dealing with basic room and contents’ fires, such as the one in the mobile burn unit.

“That gives them a lot more hands-on than just going through a book,” Soptick said. “They’re getting used to their bunker gear, their air pack and the hose.”

The students were faced with practical questions, such as how does the hose act, what does the water do when it’s applied to a fire, and what is it like when the steam comes down and they can’t see?

“So all of their reading is now coming to life by a practical evolution,”he said.

The instructors and students were joined by others during practical evolutions, such as the one at the mobile burn unit.

An EMS unit, the Hillsboro Fire Department and sometimes the Hillsboro Police Department would have representatives on site at these times.

“When we do these things, EMS also gets some of their training hours by doing stand-by for us,” Soptick said. “One of the things they did (Feb. 2) was they were taking vital signs before the firefighters went in and after they came out.”

The Firefighter I session also included hazardous-materials-awareness instruction.

The Firefighter II session is an advanced-level course and requires completion of the Firefighter I program.

“When you do Firefighter I, it’s the basics,” Soptick said. “When you get into Firefighter II, it gets into more sophisticated practical applications.”

One student completing the Firefighter I course is Bill Bradford of Marion.

Bradford, 33, works as a welder for Action Equipment in Moundridge. For the past two years, he’s been a volunteer firefighter for the Marion Fire Department.

In addition to his life with wife Tammy and their two children, Brook and Ryan, Bradford is also enrolled at Butler County Community College in Marion.

“I took Firefighter I to get more experience and more knowledge of how to do my job as a volunteer firefighter,” Bradford said.

“The things I learned were how to go about fighting certain fires-automobile fires, structural fires, pasture fires-and how to contain them. And I learned ventilation for structural fires.”

Once he becomes certified, Bradford said he would like to become a full-time firefighter.

“So this training will help me to get on a fire department.”

Bradford said he’s been called out at least 30 times during the last two years as a volunteer firefighter.

“I enjoy working with the public,” he said. “I really enjoy helping people.”

His future plans include taking the Firefighter II program and possibly going back to college to enroll in a four-year curriculum and earn a fire-science degree.

“The instructors that gave me the training in this Firefighter I, they did a great job,” Bradford said.

“They had the program organized, and they taught us everything they could. It’s a real plus.”

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