- Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

It has been stated by many professional athletes that they “hate” practice but “love” playing the game. If you look back on your own past experiences you may find that you have felt the same way about training.

So, why do we view training as a chore? Should we, as responders, view it as a necessary evil task we must perform based on a standard or regulation? Why can’t we view it as a golden opportunity to refresh our knowledge, gain new skills or add another tool into our response tool box?

At the Gulf Coast Emergency Response Training Academy (GCERA) the goal is to keep the participants engaged in the training plan, not simply presenting a fire, giving an objective, finishing the given task and walking away. The idea is to make the student think. Continually reassessing the plan and evolving the plan based on new circumstances.

“It has been my goal to change the mindset of training,” stated Academy Director Mike McCreary. Now Gulf Coast Emergency Response Training Academy will never be Disneyland. But McCreary and his instructors strive to make the training experience at the industrial fire training field something interesting rather than something dreaded. “We want them to say ‘Man that was kind of cool.’”

 - Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

To enhance our training experience GCERA is developing new and innovative techniques such as “instant replay.” High definition video cameras record the training session from all different angles to be available for instant post-exercise playback. The entire fire scenario is recorded from quarter angles.

After the fire is mitigated, the team moves to the adjacent fire building and the large video screen replays the event. Here the teams can see what the “big picture” was. They see the event from 360 degrees. By doing so, they can learn from mistakes or poor decisions that may have been made.

“If I’m on a portable monitor on the northeast side of the structure, I am only seeing that fire from my aspect,” McCreary said. “With the video, we are able to show them that they were shooting water completely over the structure.”

Then, at the conclusion of the training event, this video can be delivered to the team for use as a refresher tool during quarterly training sessions at their respective plant sites.

“I do not believe this is being offered at other schools,” he said.

Another effort that we have made progress with is an agreement with the Alabama Fire College and Personnel Standards Commission in Tuscaloosa making Gulf Coast Emergency Response Training the “subject matter experts” with regard to industrial fire training in the state of Alabama.

“We’ve been working on this since we opened the facility in 2008,” McCreary said.

This positions Gulf Coast to offer National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications or ProBoard certified training. In the past, to get ProBoard certified industrial training in this region firefighters went out of state.

“The amount of time spent in training is a big factor dividing municipal and industrial firefighters who have never had any training,” McCreary said.

 - Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

“In the municipal world we would train them for about 360 hours before we ever put them on a truck as an apprentice.” In the industrial world, instructors are only given about two weeks to train a plant worker to the level of an advanced exterior fire brigade member.

When it comes to the certification process a big challenge for GCERA has been explaining the difference between what is required of a municipal firefighter and an industrial fire brigade member. But unlike the municipal firefighter, certified training has not been a high priority for industrial fire brigade members. That is what the Alabama Fire College and GCERA would like to change.

We all win by having standards we all can meet instead of minimum goals in our industry. We think ProBoard and IFSAC (International Fire Service Accreditation Congress) are great ways to accomplish that.

Allan Rice, executive director of the Alabama Fire College, said efforts to provide state certified industrial fire training has been hit and miss in the past. The college does not currently have an industrial division.

“One of the historic barriers is that the majority of our staff members and adjunct instructors are municipal firefighters,” Rice said. “They are very, very good at what they do, but they are not necessarily familiar with the standards and operating environment of private industry.”

The partnership with GCERA is a great model for public schools operating on limited resources to join with a private school offering specialized training.

“The guys have a fantastic facility,” Rice said. “It is geared specifically to industry. But also the background of the instructors is very industry specific.”

Beautiful View

 - Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

Standing nearly 200 feet above sea level, the Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy campus is one of the highest vantage points in coastal Mobile County. As such, it affords a magnificent view of the piney woods that cover the countryside between GCERA and the city of Mobile, 20 miles south.

“We have a prevailing southern breeze in the summertime,” he said. One-third of our newest building is a pavilion so we can get participants out of the sun while still enjoying the coastal breeze.”

The 7,200-squarefoot building also incorporates an equipment area where gear is issued adjacent to the classroom. This new classroom is complete with video playback on a large screen where training evolutions can instantly be reviewed while the class takes a breather. It is the fourth building that Gulf Coast has added since acquiring the fire school in 2008.

“We are a privately owned school,” McCreary said. “The owners have chosen to take any money made and put it back into the field. This in itself speaks of the dedication to training that our owners possess.”

“Since 2008 there have been three generations of props on our fire field,” he said. “The fourth year we were here we went into the fire project with cutting torches. We pulled the insides out, reconfigured them and put them back.”

This effort was needed because it was important to give returning clients a fresh set of challenges.

The central prop at GCERA can simulate as many as 30 different fire scenarios, including chemical process mishaps, railcar loading, pumps, tanks, vessels, flanges, control room fires and overhead pipe racks.

Unlike other fire schools with various specialized props that allow multiple classes at once. Gulf Coast is designed as a scenario-based training center. In lieu of many different fire props distanced from each other, GCERA’s single, central prop is designed to look like a normal chemical processing unit. In other words, a fire at the railcar loading station may also involve exposures such as storage tanks or reactor vessels that are located inside the unit. “When the general public catch sight of our prop for the first time they usually ask, ‘What do you make there?’ That’s because it looks like a chemical manufacturing facility.”

Nature of the Job

Most industrial firefighters have other primary jobs within the plant. Firefighting is in addition to their regular job as process operators or other specialists. Ordinarily these responders perform the kind of live-fire training available at Gulf Coast Emergency Response Training once or twice a year.

“We will take the whole team through the prop and tell them what kind of fire incident they can expect McCreary said. “We ask for their ideas and let them talk through and develop a plan. Then we back out and light the prop.”

The difference between what the firefighter thinks will happen and what actually happens is instantly educational. Variables such as wind direction and the grade can result in unexpected consequences to the deployment of their plan.

The gap between industrial firefighting and the types of fires commonly encountered by municipal firefighters is not clearly understood by most firefighters, let alone the public, he said.

“Municipal firefighters go to a structure fire, pull hoselines, attack and extinguish,” McCreary said. “Industrial firefighting is different. Sometimes the objective is just to keep matters from getting worse until the people behind the curtain – the chemical unit operators – can do their job.”

For example, take a pump seal fire. By remotely closing or opening valves, product can be diverted to rob the fire of fuel. Otherwise, a direct assault on the burning pump is useless.

“An industrial firefighter wants to keep control,” McCreary said. “They want to keep the surrounding exposures from becoming part of the problem. That is a big difference. It’s a challenge to industrial firefighters and municipal firefighters to understand the different worlds they come from.”

Establishing an industrial fire school in Alabama has not been easy. Originally built by the Greater Mobile Industrial Association, a not-for-profit group, the 53-acre training field was closed in 2000. Fortunately, GCERA, the new owners, are a group with deep roots in the fire service and an abiding interest in training.

As aforementioned, each of us as owners understand the importance of quality training. All of us are from the emergency service and have made it our mission to provide the most realistic, professional training possible so that the response team members who come through our academy are able to face and mitigate very dangerous situations in a safe and competent manner. But as for me, McCreary said, “I just absolutely love the job.”

“I believe that Avery Oliver, who the training field is named for, would be proud of the direction we are headed.”