PEF member assists at instate disasters and beyond
Readiness key to confronting fires, emergencies
By DEBORAH A. MILES
The sun shined and softened the cold March air as a group of volunteer firefighters from multiple Saratoga Country agencies prepared to enter a live fire environment. At this training session, the firefighters focused on the credo, “Everyone goes home.” For they all respect the saying, “Let no man’s ghost come back to say my training let me down.”
Everyone appeared to have a specific function in the choreography of firefighting. Clad in bulky protective gear, known as turnout or bunker gear, two state fire instructors entered the four story tin structure, and ignited a bushel of hay. Within seconds, flames rose and sprawled and the intensity of the heat could be felt outside. Heavy smoke billowed out of open windows and curled under doors, leaving a trail of stench in the air. Then others entered the structure, one after another, jointly carrying a 200-foot fire hose.
Shawn Brimhall was on the scene. This PEF member, a fire protection specialist 1, is assigned to the Fire Operations and Training Branch (FOTB) at the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC).
“It’s a good fit for me, to train firefighters and fire instructors, and develop programs so they can better do their jobs,” Brimhall said. “I make sure they have the equipment they need and evaluate their performance and how they interact in a live fire environment. The training can be a classroom presentation or an Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health atmosphere, an oxygen deficient environment, where protective equipment is critical.”
When a firefighter perishes, Brimhall said FOTB responds to the ‘line of duty death of a firefighter” and assists the local fire department with funeral protocol and the aftermath.
“It’s probably one of the most stressful parts of what we do.”
Brimhall is among 15 fire protection specialists in the OFPC Outreach Program who prepares and educates the firefighters at town and county-based fire departments. Whether it’s a one alarm or a five alarm working fire that goes off in a fire department, he ensures that the responders can effectively deal with a consequential inferno. When flames snap at their faces or a room is utterly obscured by smoke, it’s the training that makes the difference of finding someone inside, and getting out safely.
Currently, Brimhall is assigned to fire departments in Albany, Schoharie and Saratoga, although he has trained in most of the counties within the state. The daily classroom sessions, where safety and the malevolence of fire are stressed, take place most evenings and Saturdays. The hands-on classes are designed for 10 to 20 people, while other sessions accommodate up to 60 people.
Large fire departments such as in Albany, Buffalo or New York City, do their own training. Brimhall said the governor signed legislation this year for career officers to meet a higher standard, so the fire officer program and fire instructor program are expanding.
“We train firefighters from career and volunteer departments in how to be instructors in their own agencies. Both of those are very intense programs for education and skill,” he said.
He is directly responsible for 35 part-time employees and is the program manager on several different disciplines, with statewide responsibility to ensure programs run with the support they need.
“The other training side of FOTB takes place at the State Fire Academy. It is a residential facility with simulators for structural and arson investigation, and hazardous materials. Our responsibility is managing the Recruit Fire Fighting Training Program,” Brimhall said.
The program includes an 11-week basic training course for career firefighters, and 440 hours of training for a brand new firefighter. They learn to thread through a burning building, understand the profundity and vagaries of fire, how it moves, and the ways to outwit it, and not to be swallowed by the smoke.
Brimhall has been deployed in several instate disasters, manning the state Fire Operations Center and local control centers in the state for emergency operations.
“You name it. I’ve been involved,” Brimhall said. “We activated the state Fire Mobilization and Mutual Aid Plan with Hurricanes Sandy, Irene and Lee. FOTB manages that. We helped provide the resources. In 2011, Irene was followed by Lee so we had to determine the best places to pull resources so we would not leave any area of the state unprotected, in the event something would happen there. My most memorable experience was my response efforts to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The special operations branch did not exist then, and the state’s assets were considered a regional response team. We spent a couple of weeks assisting the FDNY (Fire Department, City of New York).”
The operational side of FOTB includes large scale fire events, but also heartfelt rescue missions. In November 2015, an elderly gentleman was missing in the Brant Lake area. Brimhall and his team were called to action to assist the forest rangers at the state Department of Environmental Conservation who searched for the man.
“We handled the manpower and coordinated resources, so the rangers could do the search mission,” Brimhall said.
His expertise and outstanding performance also led Brimhall to assist in Louisiana after Hurricane Gustav hit, and also in Jackson County, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
“My assignment for Katrina was the planning section. I was tracking the resources that were coming in, such as law enforcement. The Metro Los Vegas Police Department arrived with 100 law enforcement officers to basically assist the local law enforcement entities with maintaining curfews and boarding off areas to prevent looting. We also tracked and distributed donations, ordered supplies for local residents such as water, ice, and meals, while tracking those resources.”
Brimhall said the OFPC has a diverse mission, as it provides both technical and tactical services to New Yorkers.
“It is very rewarding. I find most of us have a mindset and discipline that we are ready to work and do whatever task we need to accomplish on a specific job. It varies from day to day. Emergencies dictate that we have a constant state of readiness.”