Five years ago, fire chiefs from Anoka County departments decided the most efficient and least expensive way to train was to join forces.
Two times a years, a five-month course takes place to train volunteers.
The 10th class of the Anoka County Fire Training Academy – referred to as Class 10 – received their certificates of graduation at a July 6 commencement at Spring Lake Park High School. The 25 recruits are joining nine different fire departments.
“These are some of the same people you’ll see when helping out on a call. It may not be for a couple of years, but you’ll remember you were part of Class 10 together,” said Chris Dvorak, who is now an Andover firefighter.
Allowing recruits the opportunity to meet their peers from other Anoka County fire departments and saving money by the department’s own personnel leading the training rather than sending recruits to local colleges are the main reasons the Anoka County Fire Training Academy was formed in 2012.
Jerry Streich, now in charge of the Andover Fire Department, was the Centennial Fire District chief at the time. He and other chiefs were keenly aware that they had an aging volunteer force and needed some new recruits.
Streich surveyed 15 fire chiefs covering the 22 Anoka County cities and found that they would need 236 firefighter recruits in the next four years just to keep departments at current staffing levels. Even with these firefighters there would still be the same problem of limited daytime coverage when most volunteers are at work.
Streich got assistance from Harlan Lundstrom and Tim Gilsrud to do the administrative work. Lundstrom, previously the assistant chief for the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department is now the fire chief of the Centennial Fire District. Gilsrud is now the battalion chief of the Coon Rapids Fire Department. Streich became director of the academy while Lundstrom and Gilsrud have served as assistants.
There have been as many as 36 graduates and as few as 10, but a total of 289 firefighters have graduated from the 10 classes since the first was held in 2012.
“I’m personally proud it worked,” Streich said. “I think we’ve developed a stronger candidate who feels more engaged in the fire service. Hopefully, that leads to a longer tenure with the fire department.”
Recruitment and retention is a significant conundrum for many fire departments, Streich and other fire chiefs from across Anoka County have said. Families are busier than ever and responding to multiple calls can be stressful on families.
“From this moment on, you’ll never be off duty,” Class 10 heard from Jim Smith, chief deputy state fire marshal. “The badge comes with a responsibility and accountability. You’ll always be a representative of your badge and this profession.”
Gilsrud encouraged these rookie firefighters to stay active with their hobbies and family life.
“A drill is not more important than a kid’s fifth birthday party,” he said.
During the five-month courses, most of the training happens at the SBM Fire Department’s Station 3 in Blaine. The “live fire drills” happen in Minneapolis now that the fire training facility in Fridley is no longer available. Fridley is planning on building a new city campus on that property.
An eight-minute video shown at the commencement ceremony showed the firefighter candidates climbing tall ladders, putting out a car fire, going into a smoke-filled room to put out a fire and getting hoses hooked up to the fire engines and properly stored.
But firefighters of today must be prepared for anything from a terrorist attack, chemical spill, a school shooting, a natural gas explosion, train derailment or a tornado while still having the skills to put out a fire and get the occasional animal out of a tree or sewer.
Gilsrud said there was a lot of classroom time that was not as photogenic, but was just as important since topics covered included understanding the role of local government, the 911 dispatch communications system, hazardous material response and building construction.
“We’ve become the Swiss Army Knife of the community,” Streich said.