By Chuck Cannon, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerFebruary 17, 2012
FORT^POLK, La. -- Firefighters are a special breed. They combine the skills of a NASCAR driver, emergency medical technician and world-class athlete to create a superhero that can go from lounging in an easy chair to rescuing a victim from a raging inferno and certain death in less than 10 minutes.
They respond to car crashes and tractor-trailer turnovers; heart attack victims and heat related injuries; burning buildings and battered bodies. When a 9-1-1 call is received, the odds are a firefighter will be one of the first to provide life-saving help.
Firefighters and the departments they work for also play a role in how much a home or business owner pays in fire insurance. The higher rating a department earns, the lower the premiums are for area residents. To that end, fire departments take pride in their rating, which can range from Class 1 to 10.
"A Class 1 rating means you are one of the best fire departments in the country," Fort Polk Fire Chief Michael Kuk said. "There are only a few departments that ever receive that rating."
Which makes the results of Fort Polk's Fire and Emergency Services operational readiness inspection Jan. 23-27 all the more remarkable. Military fire and emergency services departments aren't rated on the same 1-to-10 scale as civilian departments, but they do receive a numerical score from 1-to-100 percent. Fort Polk scored a 98.
"If converted to a civilian department, it would probably be a Class 1++," Kuk said.
Kuk said departments are rated on administration and management, operations, training, their fire prevention program, fire protection engineering and firefighting exercises including structural and aircraft rescue firefighting egress drills, hazardous materials requirements and weapons of mass destruction requirements. The inspection is done every three years.
Out of a total possible 900 points, Fort Polk Fire and Emergency Services totaled 879, equaling the 98 percent grade.
The inspection team highlighted the following areas as "rave reviews":
• Upkeep of firefighting apparatus and vehicle replacement initiative.
• Fire and emergency services staffing keeps senior installation leadership well informed.
• A chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives working group.
• Southwest Louisiana mutual aid relationship with local civilian fire departments.
• Hosting a Louisiana State University mini fire school at no cost to local civilian departments.
• Cardio pulmonary resuscitation, emergency medical technician, arbor rescue, hazardous material technician and confined space refresher courses.
• Well trained firefighters; skills demonstrated during structural and aircraft exercises.
Kuk said the results were a "pleasant" surprise.
"We scored 94 percent on our last inspection, which is very good in itself," Kuk said. "We have so many challenges because our resources haven't grown a lot over the years."
Tackling that challenge is Assistant Chief Greg Self, training officer for Fort Polk's Fire and Emergency Services. Self said Army regulations call for three hours a week of training.
"That's not enough to keep us up on all that we have to do," Self said. "Actually, there's not enough daylight to do all the training we'd like to do."
Self said he often receives calls from former members of the department who have transferred to other military bases commenting on how much they miss Fort Polk.
"A lot of bases aren't as active as we are," he said. "They aren't blessed to have EMTs and paramedics like we do."
Having firefighters who are also paramedics is important to a sprawling post like Fort Polk, Self said.
"A guy recently fell more than 10 feet on North Fort," he said. "Our firefighters were able to give treatment while waiting for the ambulance."
Self said each day offers new challenges for the department.
"One day it might be a fire, another day an automobile wreck, the next day a paratrooper who needs recovering from a tree, and the next, a snake in someone's home," he said. "You never know what you're going to face, but you have to be ready to face it all.
"We're managers of chaos," he continued. "It's like herding cats."
One of the areas cited by the inspection team is the department's mutual aid relationship with local civilian fire departments. Self said those relationships help each department.
"We might have equipment that some of the other departments don't have so that's beneficial for them," Self said. "However, one drawback for us is water supply. Fort Polk is so large and spread out that we don't have fire hydrants in some of the more remote areas. That's where we draw on the support of local departments who have water supplies they can share."
Another key leader for Kuk is Assistant Chief Mike O'Toole, the department's operations officer. He classifies post firefighters as the "doers."
"If any type of emergency happens on Fort Polk, they call us," he said. "We are constantly looking at different scenarios that could affect Soldiers and how we can help them."
O'Toole said a great working relationship has developed between Fort Polk and local civilian firefighters.
"There are no jurisdictional issues like you might see in some places," O'Toole said. "You can't bring your feelings or ego to a call -- if you get there and you're doing it better, you do it. It's a showing of skills; they know we are trained in many different skills.
We've built strong relationships with all local law enforcement and fire departments."
The LSU mini fire school hosted each year at Fort Polk helps foster those relationships, Kuk said.
"We invite local volunteer firefighters," Kuk said. "Everyone gets to know and train with each other; it makes it easier to work together when you know each other."
Kuk said that while Self and O'Toole are a big part of the department's success, the recent inspection results were driven from the bottom up.
"Our firefighters are dedicated and self-motivated," he said. "There is a lot of professional pride and it came through on our score. We have a terrific collection of talent."
Part of that collection is Lt. Cole Brewer. The former active-duty Army firefighter said the leadership of Fort Polk's Fire and Emergency Services encourages input from all firefighters.
"And it's not just daily, but long term also," Brewer said. "We are allowed to affect quality of life issues. It gives us an opportunity to have a vested interest; it's more than just a job."
Brewer said he enjoys coming to work each day.
"I can't imagine a better career," he said. "I love the Army and love firefighting even more. I'm blessed."
Kuk said his department has several former Army firefighters like Brewer.
"They haven't forgotten what it's like to be a Soldier," Kuk said. "Their input is invaluable. Guys like Cole make our job easy."
Brewer said he sees his job as especially important.
"We're protecting those who defend America," he said. "I know that if deployed, should some type of emergency affect my Family, everything that is humanly possible is being done to protect them."
Facing life and death situations daily with fellow firefighters builds strong bonds, Brewer said.
"The job doesn't stop with the ringing of a bell," he said. "We pick at each other, we get mad at each other, yet we celebrate each other's significant events."
That family bond, Brewer said, can be stressful on more traditional Family relationships.
"It's definitely tough on your Family," he said. "You work odd hours and you never know if you're going to come home."
Even though a firefighter's work schedule -- 24 hours on, 24 hours off -- doesn't allow for a lot of "at home" time, those who've chosen firefighting as a profession often find themselves doing the same type work when they're off, Self said.
"A lot of our guys work on their off days at volunteer fire departments in their local communities," he said. "The job, the adrenaline of such high-paced work, becomes almost addictive."
While he is proud of the rating the department received, Kuk said he's not ready to rest on his laurels. He points to an incident that occurred nearly five years ago in Charleston, S.C.
"Charleston is a Class 1 rated fire department, one of the best in the nation," Kuk said. "But on June 20, 2007, they had nine firefighters killed when the roof of a warehouse collapsed during a fire. We must stay grounded and never let our guard down; anything can happen."
Kuk said firefighting is not an exact science.
"Everything changes in an emergency situation," he said. "If we move metal one inch, we've changed the whole structure. We're proud, and I want our people to be proud, but we can't relax our guard.
"At 7 a.m. each morning, everyone working the night before needs to go home to their Family. That's my main goal."