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Small Alaska town's volunteer fire department is world-class

Jennifer GibbinsThe Cordova Times

Dave Calvert, firefighter/medic and fire training officer for the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department, had quite literally vanished from his chair in the blink of an eye.

Calvert is one of two paid staff members at the department and we had been talking at his desk for about an hour. Then, as I glanced up from my notebook, Calvert heard the call "unconfirmed fire at Ocean Beauty" crackling out from the radio clipped to his shoulder. Our conversation paused, I blinked momentarily, but Dave was already gone -- without a word or a stir of air. A moment later came the cranking sound of the electric firehall garage doors rolling open. I picked up my notebook and camera and stepped out the side door just two feet away. About 30 seconds had passed.

Time on the photo reading 3:48:52.20 shows Calvert in his gear -- coat, pants and boots -- climbing into the cab of Engine 3.

Time on the photo reading 3:49:20.60 shows Calvert rolling Engine 3 out of the garage.

Time on the photo reading 03:49:30.60 shows the first additional department member arriving at the station. Calvert hops out of the driver seat, into the passenger seat. Driver Jerry LaMaster climbs in. Meanwhile, firefighters Micah Renfeld and Mike Galambush arrive.

Time on the photo reading 3:52:19.80 shows Engine 3 leaving the parking area with a team of four. Two members of the EMS unit, Melanie O'Brien and Linda Brown, have also arrived at the fire hall and are preparing the ambulance to follow.

"We've got a world class volunteer fire department," says city manager Randy Robertson, when I described with astonishment the speed with which the CVFD had rolled out.

Training, training, training

The CVFD trains regularly, and it certainly showed that day. Coincidentally, the reason for the visit with Calvert that afternoon was to find out more about upcoming training that the department offered beginning Sunday.

Calvert, who has been a firefighter for 18 years, arrived in Cordova earlier this year and is currently the only Fire Fighter II in the department -- meaning he is certified to advanced national standards and trained to provide the Firefighter I (FFI) Academy.

"We want to provide the best product to the community," said Calvert. "By training at a higher level, the community benefits."

A basic firefighter receives certification in rural fire protection and defensive attack from the outside of a building only. But a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) FFI is trained in a combination of attack strategies that include both offensive and defensive strategies. Department-wide training is conducted weekly every Thursday night in a repeating rotation of four topics: fire, business, EMS and a wild-card week based on current needs, issues or opportunities. About once or twice a year the department gets out and burns something up or down for practice, a dilapidated trailer or an old car donated by a member of the community. Firefighters may also attend trainings and conferences outside of Cordova. Because of Cordova's remote rural location, the Chief and fire marshal have some discretion when it comes to who may don an air pack and make entry for an offensive interior attack on a fire -- all FFI standards. The last time Cordova was able to offer FFI training right here at home was about 2010.

"The level of certification and standard is always going up," said Calvert. "The bucket brigade days are definitely over."

FFI training helps firefighters recognize the behavior and hazards of a fire. Types of smoke; what is happening within a structure that may be indicators of what a fire will do next. A fire is down a hallway, it is hot, not vented -- all indicative of a particularly high risk pre-flashing condition.

"When you sign on the dotted line to become a firefighter/EMT, from that point on, whether its this year or 25 years from now, you've inherited someone else's problem," said Calvert. "It may sound odd, but their bad day should be our best day because we are trained and can put the training into perspective and action."

Because membership in the department fluctuates regularly with new folks moving to town and others moving on, and because not every member of the department is on call or available at every moment, the department works actively to keep new members coming in and enrollment up. Currently the department has 44 active members on the roster plus 12 Explorers -- youth EMS members of the department ages 15-17 -- and three firefighter applicants. Of those, thirteen members are certified as FFI. Eight firefighters will participate in the upcoming FFI training. And Calvert plans to offer a Firefighter II (FFII) Academy in the fall.

"If all our Firefighter I members participate in the FFII fall training, we will have the highest Firefighter II training in the department's history," said Calvert.

FFI Academy

Calvert encourages any member of the community who is interested to participate -- even if they are simply dropping by for a class on a particular topic that interests them.

"We welcome residents who are interested in signing up for the entire training, and those who may want to attend a specific class like fire extinguisher training or fire behavior and fire chemistry," said Calvert.

For those who are accepted for the full FFI Academy, it is a significant commitment, reflective of their personal commitment to the department and the community. Training runs January-March, Monday and Wednesday from 6-10 p.m, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.. Calvert said that in addition to being an opportunity to serve Cordova, the training can open career doors.

"This training is free and it is universal. You can take it to any job," said Calvert. "It looks good on your resume and can help you get your foot in the door. All firefighter certification is recognized across the country. When I worked in Anchorage, many paid members of the department came from a volunteer background."

In addition to free training, the CVFD equips all members with their "turnouts" meaning their coats, pants, bots, helmets, gloves, hood and pager. About $5500 in gear alone. EMS members are outfitted with specialized gear that protects against blood-borne pathogens and bacteria. Department officers are outfitted with about $11,000 worth of gear.

"With community support, we invest in our members," said Calvert.

False alarm

Thankfully, the call to Ocean Beauty turned out to be a false alarm. Two additional firefighters responded for a total team of eight on the call.

For more information on how you can get involved in the Cordova Volunteer Fire Department, stop in and talk with Paul Trumblee, fire marshal, or Dave Calvert. Calvert may also be reached at fire2(at)cityofcordova.net. Calvert says the department would especially like to hear from local members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

This article originally appeared in the Cordova Times and is republished here with permission. You can reach Jennifer Gibbins with comments and suggestions at editor(at)thecordovatimes.com