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The best way to prepare for the worst

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A Cobb County firefighter climbs a ladder to the fourth story of the Public Safety training tower during a March 20 exercise.


By Gary A. Witte
CobbLine Staff

A firefighter’s workday has three main components: emergencies, routine and training.

Any one of these can fill a day, but the public may not be aware just how full 24 hours can become for members of Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services.

“The job has changed a lot in the 30 years I’ve been here,” Battalion Chief Chuck Carter of Kennesaw said. “The fire services handle any type of emergency that no one else will go to.”

Since 1981, both Cobb’s population and the number of firefighters working for the county has more than doubled, according to the department. However, the firefighters now respond to 10 times the number of calls – going from 4,777 in 1981 to 47,339 emergency calls during the last year.

The hours spent in these crises does not include the training needed to deal with them. Cobb firefighters are required to complete 291 hours of annual training along with their normal duties, officials said.

“That’s two to three hours a shift, just to meet the minimum,” Field Technician John Bennett of Adairsville said. “It’s still a good job, but it is a job.”

Those who work in special units, such as the Hazmat or Technical Rescue Teams, train even when it isn’t required. The Technical Rescue team members based at Station 14 near Marietta and Station 4 near Smyrna are constantly working to train current and newer members to maintain their expertise.

“It’s going to serve the citizens better to have these guys trained in this stuff,” Capt. John Redwine, one of the leaders of the Technical Rescue Team, said during a March 20 exercise at North Cobb High School. “Logistically, it’s very hard to make this happen. We’re still running calls in addition to the class. We’ve always got to be multitasking.”
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During the training, instructors and students practiced lowering and raising patients from atop a 40-foot high tower. The firefighters receiving the instruction in high angle rescues took turns being the patient.

Should a real world call come in, firefighters on the ground would respond to the call and the exercise would halt.

“When you take care of that, you go back to your original task,” Redwine said. “There’s a good bit we do to keep things running. None of that stops.”

Similarly, at Station 8 in Kennesaw, members of the county Hazmat Team conducted modified cross training to get ready for an upcoming physical fitness test. The exercise functioned as both preparation as well as stress relief, firefighters said.

“We try to do it every shift, but depending on call volume, we don’t always get to it,” Lt. Gray Ellis of Douglasville said. “There’s not a lot of monotony here.”

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Firefighters work a 24-hour shift, starting just before dawn.

At Station 28 in Acworth, Battalion Chief Scott Demkowski of Powder Springs finished his shift by discussing training, personnel and equipment issues with Carter as part of the daily handover. Bennett, as accountability officer, called the eight stations within Battalion 4 to see who was there and who wasn’t.

Work schedules are mapped out a year in advance. An absence can result in a change in truck seating, which the leadership uses to track where their firefighters are during a crisis. Each vehicle requires a minimum staffing to be considered mission capable.

“When you’ve got 49 people, there’s always something going on,” Carter said.

The first thing a newcomer might notice is the constant background voice of the radio dispatcher. Calls to other stations on the intercom drift past without comment. A special tone informs the firefighters if their station is the one assigned to the emergency.

Throughout the day, no matter where Carter and Bennett go to visit stations in the battalion, the radio follows with calls about alarms, injuries, car wrecks and more.

Most calls Cobb Fire and Emergency Services responded to last year were medical emergencies, with a requirement that basic life support unit be there within five minutes of being dispatched.

The next largest category of emergencies include brush fires, vehicle accidents, dealing with hazardous materials and other emergencies. Less than 1 percent of the calls were for structure fires, according to the department.

Recruits go through seven months of training before they ever ride in a truck, Bennett said. Even afterwards, preparing for the job never stops.

Bennett said firefighters must meet state and county requirements to keep their lifesaving skills fresh. For example, although a CPR certification is good for two years, Cobb firefighters have to get it renewed every year.

“It’s things you should already know, but you have to go out and practice them,” Bennett said.

That same evening, three stations gathered at the Cobb County Public Safety Training Center for mandatory night training. The exercise called for firefighters to enter the smoke-filled training tower, hook hoses into the water system and simulate putting out a fire. When the windows and doors are closed, the four-story structure’s interior is sealed in darkness, leaving firefighters to rely on their personal flashlights to make their way through.

Once responders were in the building, the mission changed and they had to find and rescue a fellow firefighter in the dark. The scenario ran several times over several hours, with rescuers having to enter by truck ladder into the top floor, the bottom floor and then having to share their air system with the “victim.”

Capt. Dwan Patterson of Dallas, who set up and led the exercise, talked with the firefighters afterwards about the successes and problems which arose during the scenarios. As a group, they discussed the importance of practicing with equipment they don’t use all the time.

“If we shortcut things, we’re not going to be prepared when things are really bad,” Patterson said.