Focus of fire department shifted

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 2, 2000

The days of cribbage, cards and pool games in the fire house are long gone in Austin.

Saturday, September 02, 2000

The days of cribbage, cards and pool games in the fire house are long gone in Austin. Now the pool table has been replaced with a training table, piled high with materials. The famous station meals cooked by Carl Hanson – and the infamous meals cooked by Tom Langan – have been replaced by McDonald’s and Taco Bell. The hours spent whiling away the time waiting for a call have been filled – filled with education of staff and the public, with fire prevention and fire code enforcement activities and with constant training and maintenance.

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The focus of the Austin Fire department has shifted. When once things were mostly geared toward suppression of, or putting out, fires, now the focus is split between education, suppression and technology.

Commander Ted Gilbertson puts education first.

"We’re educators now," Gilbertson said. "We’re trying to prevent fires – our goal is not to have fires and the biggest factor in attaining that goal is education."

By 5 p.m. Thursday Gilbertson and fellow firefighter Terry Petersen had already had a busy day, and the two or three hours of training the two would give the newest part-time firefighters that evening was still a couple hours away. It was a typical Thursday, keeping in mind that the duties of the full-time firefighters on a 24-hour shift at the AFD vary from day to day, week to week and season to season.

In the morning the pair had given a fire extinguisher demonstration with the Head Start instructors at Woodson School.

"The first thing we did was to preach not to start fires and ways of making that less likely," Gilbertson said. "If that first plan of preventing fires fails, however, we covered part two: what to do in case of a fire, importance of early detection, having a plan to handle the fire … Of course, while we were there we also talked about smoke detectors in the home and the Smokebusters program."

After the demonstration at Woodson, the pair proceeded out to Morem’ s Tree Service for a pre-plan. By looking at businesses before there’s a fire, the department can detail things like existing fire walls, exits, what kind of materials are stored there – all things that will help them make better decisions in case of a fire and possibly save lives or at least save property. They can also talk to the business owner about things that he or she might change to reduce the fire risk.

Throughout the time the pair of firefighters were out, they had a truck and their gear with them. That way if a call came over their pagers, they could – depending on the situation – go straight to the scene. Once there, they might have been met by Fire Chief Dan Wilson and/or Felten, who are both available during the day. If the situation was a potentially serious fire, they could also have paged-in a shift or two of the part-time firefighters. With the pair of them on duty, however, it guaranteed any call would be faced by an experienced pair of veterans at the very least. Calls for vehicle extrication or fires, rescue, alarm-structured buildings – all those can be answered by two firefighters.

No call came that afternoon, so they went back to the station after the pre-plan was done.

Back at the station, while Gilbertson went back to work on the end of month reports he was working on, Peterson checked the self-contained breathing apparatus and made the daily truck check. He also continued with the hose testing, a week-long process at the fire station.

On a normal Thursday, the work day would last – with breaks for lunch and supper – until 8 p.m. and then they could relax providing there were no calls. Because of the evening training session, the work day would be a little longer. That night they would be training the new firefighters on ventilation, an important lesson in firefighting.

"We have a good relationship with the part-time firefighters," Gilbertson said. "But their primary duty is in fire suppression. We use them when we need the manpower, whether it’s a structural fire or the demolition derby at the Mower County Fair. They all have the training, it’ s experience and confidence that are a little harder to get for a part-timer. We don’t have a lot of major fires in Austin."

As far as Gilbertson knows, Austin’ s full-time firefighters work harder than most. Their 56-hour work week includes more productive hours spent in education, investigation and preparation than most other combination (part-time and full-time) and career departments.

Austin’s on the right track, according to the U.S. Fire Commission, but there is still a ways to go. According to a recent report released by the commission, "… A reasonably disaster-resistant America will not be achieved until there is greater acknowledgement of the importance of the fire service and a willingness at all levels of government to adequately fund the needs and responsibilities of the fire service … Without the integrated efforts of all segments of the community, including city and county managers, mayors, architects, engineers, researchers, academics, materials producers and the insurance industry, as well as the fire service, there is little reason to expect that a proper appreciation of the critical role played by the fire service will materialize, in which case the necessary funding will continue to be lacking."

The frustration for Gilbertson, as a firefighter and one of the primary trainers in the department, is not knowing what the city plans for the future of the department. On Tuesday, the Austin City Council will cast a preliminary vote on its budget and tax levy for 2001 – one of the budget questions on the minds of council members is whether or not to replace a full-time firefighter dismissed in August.

"What we need to know is what the community expects the department to do," Gilbertson said, "because each time we lose a (full-time) firefighter now, we lose the ability to do something. If we’re going to have less full-time people, we’re going to have to start making choices about what we can and cannot do."