‘Burn building’ to be valuable asset for St. George firefighters

A training exercise in progress

A training exercise in progress

When the alarm goes off, our town’s firefighters respond, ready to do what is required to protect the people and property of St. George. They need to be prepared  for that dangerous task by having the proper equipment and training. The only way to train a firefighter for the dangerous work of fighting a structure fire is to put them in real conditions: facing fire, heat and smoke, wearing all of their gear and hauling hoses and axes. In the past, training was done by acquiring structures that could be burned. This has become very problematic because of environmental concerns and the increasing value of older structures.

It has been the vision of the St. George Volunteer Firefighters and Ambulance Association (SGVFFAA) to build a live fire training facility, or “burn building,” for many years. “All the pieces are in place now to make it happen,” says Chief Tim Polky, SGVFFAA President. “We have land next to the Fire Station on Route 73, and the Town has been setting aside money in a reserve fund over the past few years. The fund has grown to $82,000. This May the voters approved transferring those funds to the Association when construction begins. We began raising the additional funds this spring. Our goal is to raise $290,000 in the next year through grants and donations. This will be a regional resource and we’re making a pitch to individuals and businesses throughout Knox County for support.”

In 2010 SGVFFAA members began designing the facility. “There is nothing else like it in the state,” says Chris Leavitt, Assistant Chief. “It will be state-of-the-art. The two-story building can be configured to create a variety of training scenarios that will prepare us for the wide variety of situations we have to deal with. Firefighters can practice entering a room that is thick with smoke and rescuing people, carrying them down stairs, or going out through a second story window.” The facility can also accommodate training for fire suppression, search and rescue, ventilation and rehab. Other types of training included confined space training, rescue training for EMS as well as fire, and other fire-related training like sprinkler systems, ‘get out alive,’ and may-day operations.

“One huge benefit of this facility will be the chance for several fire departments to train together,” says Assistant Chief Larry Smith. “When the alarm goes out for a structure fire a department depends on neighboring towns to respond. We rely on Thomaston and South Thomaston, and they rely on us, for both manpower and equipment. Thomaston has a ladder truck, but we have the tank truck.”

With this dependence on mutual aid it is critical that these departments have trained together to insure the safety of the firefighters and to deliver the best possible protection of people and property.

“When there’s a fire in a two-story house we need to have at least eight certified firefighters on the scene,” says Mike Smith, Deputy Chief. “We do everything in pairs. To be certified for a structure fire, and then to stay certified, requires many evenings and Saturdays of training. Right now we have about 12 firefighters in St George with that level of training. Some of them are getting older. Some of them work outside of town, or are not always available.”

Chief Polky says it’s important for people to understand how important it is for firefighters to train together. “We have to trust each other.”

Recruiting residents willing to volunteer to be ‘on call’ to respond to fires is a growing challenge for many fire departments. The Village Soup ran an editorial on May 21, 2015, “Public Safety needs new blood.” The piece noted that there were approximately 12,000 firefighters in the early 1990s in Maine, but that number now is in the area of 8,000. Reasons cited for the dwindling numbers are the increase in the cost of living, the cost of gas to respond to calls or attend training is higher, the emergency force is getting older.

“It’s increasingly difficult to find people willing to drop what they’re doing when an alarm goes off,“ says Polky. “Having this training facility could help us recruit and retain firefighters in St. George. Even though we’re a ‘call’ department, rather than full-time, all of us train to the same level. We’re all professional. That’s why I hesitate to use the word ‘volunteer.’ Though we’re volunteering much of our time, we’re just as well trained and professional as full-time firefighters.”

The project is endorsed by the Knox County Mutual Aid Association. There are 18 municipalities in the association, including Waldoboro and Lincolnville.  Annual operating expenses will be paid for through dues and fees paid by other departments.

“This facility will be good for St. George and a regional resource,” Leavitt says with understandable pride.

Drawings and floor plans of the facility are at www.kcfta.com.

  —Susan Bates

PHOTO: SGVFFAA

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