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Super heroes

No, I’m not referring to The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman or the Silver Surfer; I’m referring to the men and women of your local fire protection district.

Firefighters work under an enormous amount of pressure and stress. Statistically, more firefighters die on the job than any other profession, more even than police officers. The dangers presented by entering a burning building or attending to an accident on I-70 during a snow storm, combined with 24-hour shifts and the horror of seeing fellow human beings injured, are just some of the reasons that firefighters are almost four times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker. Stress-related deaths, including heart attacks, account for almost 50 percent of all firefighter fatalities.

We have several fire protection districts in the valley. Recently I had the privilege of spending time with the men and women of the Eagle River Fire Protection District, which includes the area from Dowd Junction to Cordillera and up to Tennessee Pass.

This area is served by seven stations in Red Cliff, Minturn, Eagle-Vail (the oldest station), Beaver Creek, Avon, Wildridge, Edwards and Cordillera. Soon there will be an eighth at the Cordillera Summit.

Three things leaped out at me when I visited the Avon station: 1) The professional attitudes of the men and women on duty 2) their enthusiasm, and 3) the knowledge each had at his or her fingertips.

Police are trained that when necessary they will put their life in danger in order to save a citizen; i.e., a policeman will put him or herself between a transgressor and a potential victim in order to shield the victim. They are also taught to assume that backup may not always be available.

A firefighter, on the other hand, has a different focus in an emergency. The last thing a firefighter wants to do is to become another victim and exacerbate a crisis situation. That’s why you’ll always see firefighters in pairs. These things are obvious to me now, but before my visit at the station house they were well below my radar screen.

In large urban areas, firefighters may be specialists. But the Eagle River district is cross training all of their firefighters so that their people can function as driver/operators, engineers or pure firefighters.

The district is comprised primarily of full-time career firefighters and supplemented by paid member-volunteer firefighters. It also conducts a training academy for young people who want to enter the profession. About 100 apply every year. After much testing, including physical agility, mechanical aptitude and oral interviews to determine a candidate’s motivation, about a dozen are chosen to participate in the two-month training program. The training academy is a combination of boot camp, classroom work and practical training. It also includes a mentoring program.

Like all professions, there is so much more to being a firefighter than meets the eye that it would be impossible to scratch the surface in 875 words. The events that firefighters must be prepared for are practically unlimited because when people don’t know whom to call, they call the fire department.

These dedicated professionals address situations including bees, bears, leaking gas pipes, fires in homes, hotels, wildland fires and white water rescue. Meanwhile, they’re also responsible for providing for the displaced people when these situations occur, just one more contingency to deal with when it’s 10 degrees in blowing snow.

Eagle River firefighters work shifts of 24 hours on, 24 hours off for six days, followed by four days off. Scheduling is done far in advance. Holidays, such as Christmas, New Year’s, etc., become more or less luck of the draw with rank being less of a factor than one might imagine. I also suspect that absences during holidays create even more stress points, especially for families with young children.

A typical (if there is such a thing) day includes a brief meeting when the shift begins at 7 a.m. followed by complete inspections of their equipment and at least one training activity. How many professions do you know of that conduct daily training exercises outside of the military?

Firefighters must be certified in a myriad of disciplines, and then recertified every three years in varied operations such as basic firefighting, driver operations, swift water rescue, aerial rescue, EMT, hazardous materials and paramedic operations, to name just a few.

These certifications cannot be completed at the same time, so their training is not dissimilar from painting the Golden Gate Bridge – it’s continuous. As soon as they’re finished with one recertification, they begin another.

I asked what assignments they felt were the most dangerous and received an answer I didn’t expect. To the man (and woman), they said that interstate auto accidents, followed closely by wildland fires, caused the most trepidation. Space limits me from describing everything these fine men and women do for us, including their wide-ranging community services. But it’s extensive.

Since 9/11 these professional men and women have received much deserved recognition, but there’s nothing wrong with saying thank you again. The next time you see one of these men or women at the Safeway or Wal-Mart shopping for their lunch or dinner, be sure to say hello – and thanks. They’ll appreciate it.

Quote of the day: “When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all.”

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net


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