Bolivar City Fire Chief Jim Ludden believes training is key to the public’s safety and is working hard to bring training opportunities to not only his crew, but to the entire county.
Last week, Ludden’s department applied for a regional grant to receive funding for a $225,000 live fire burn trailer.
Although it would be housed at the BCFD, the department plans to make the trailer available for countywide training.
The Bolivar Board of Aldermen recently voted for the city to provide $11,250 toward the purchase of the trailer; however, if the department does not receive the grant, it will not purchase the trailer.
During its Jan. 12 meeting, the Board of Aldermen accepted letters of support and co-applications from the Morrisville Fire Protection District and the Pleasant Hope Fire Protection District.
The BCFD is no stranger to the grant-funding process.
“We applied for (this grant) last year as the sole department,” Ludden said. “If we apply as a regional grant, we have to get everybody’s data, so it’s a lot easier to apply just in-house. It went to the grant reviewers, and we made it to the last stage.”
Ludden said grant reviewers denied funding in the final stages because Bolivar needed other departments in the area to commit their support.
“Even when we applied for (the grant) ourselves, we said we want this to be an asset to the county. We had no intention of using this like it’s our toy,” Ludden said.
Ludden recently presented the grant opportunity to the Polk County Fire Rescue Training Association, which includes representatives from every fire department in Polk County.
The association voted to give its support for the grant, and Ludden also secured support from the Morrisville and Pleasant Hope fire districts.
“Having these two departments on board is huge,” Ludden said.
However, backing from Central Polk County Fire Protection District is a missing piece to the grant application puzzle, Ludden said.
“It is my understanding its board decided to decline support of the grant, irrespective of anything else,” Ludden said. “When you consider that we can’t add the next largest department in the county and that department’s numbers to our grant, that’s a big deal. The additional support would have been huge.”
Central Polk County Fire Chief Ken Witt declined to comment on the matter.
Morrisville Fire Protection District Chief Bill Proctor said he cannot emphasize enough the importance of training firefighters in a live fire simulator.
“The live fire interior fire attack doesn’t present itself that often,” Proctor said. “They are high-risk, low-frequency situations.”
Proctor said the hands-on experience is something that is not easy to teach.
“With these trailers, we can not only train in theory, but we can experience the atmosphere — the heat, flames, smoke, stair wells, which can be particularly dangerous to firefighters. It truly replicates what we have to deal with in a live fire situation.”
Ludden said it has been difficult to foster community among the county’s fire departments.
“Since our administration started, we’ve asked for multi-company training with all the departments in the area,” Ludden said. “We had some, but it’s few and far between these days, which benefits no one.
“If we have (a mutual aid call), we are all going to be working together. So why wouldn’t we practice that? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Ludden said it has never been easy to obtain federal grant funds, with or without support from other departments.
“Grants are so, so difficult to get these days because the funding is dried up,” Ludden said. “It’s very competitive.”
Because of a change in the grant funding categories, the live burn trailer falls under equipment funds instead of training.
According to Ludden, it is hard to compete against other departments that are applying for much-needed basic equipment, like air tanks.
However, he places a great deal of confidence in Deputy Chief Brent Watkins and his ability to write grant proposals.
“(Watkins) put a lot into this,” Ludden said. “He’s fantastic. I could not do it without him.”
Ludden said he plans to keep pushing his department ahead, even if obstacles prevent the department from receiving the grant.
“If we don’t get the grant, we’ll apply for it again,” Ludden said. “We are so thankful and blessed to have the support we have both from the city and the constituents. But there is a limited amount of dollars — right, wrong or indifferent.
“At the end of the day, you don’t change Rome overnight. We’ll keep asking and taking those steps. We will keep trying to professionalize and be the department people deserve.”
Ludden said currently, the closest live fire burn trailer is in Springfield. Although his crews do not have to travel far, going to another department for training poses logistical concerns.
“If we send a combination crew together, whether it’s paid and reserve, to Springfield so they can train, we are paying overtime for another crew to come in and cover them. Also, our reserves have to ask for a day off (from their full-time jobs),” Ludden said. “It becomes very, very difficult very quickly.”
If the grant is approved, Ludden said the department will likely place the live fire trailer at Station 2 on South Killingsworth Avenue, which houses one engine, one brush truck, two trailers and two parade vehicles.
“We have some infrastructure that we’ll have to get set so it can be placed and set well,” Ludden said. “We’re already talking with James Bradshaw with the water department about getting a hydrant placed on site. We need to set up a couple of those key pieces.”
According to Ludden, training in a live fire burn trailer will greatly improve departments’ responses to fire calls. He said there some is knowledge firefighters can learn only when dealing with live fire situations.
“This prop is intended specifically for one of our main purposes,” Ludden said.
Ludden said the list of techniques crews learn from live fire trailers is long and includes suppressing, investigating, understanding how fire works and reading conditions.
“This prop does a lot, because you are dealing with live fire. Any time you are doing that, you can learn so much,” Ludden said. “This trailer gives you a lot of options you don’t otherwise get unless you are training on somebody’s house, and nobody wants that.”
Ludden said this tool can ultimately help the BCFD and area departments reach a new level of professionalism and expertise.
“People expect you to be a professional when you get there and extinguish the fire as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Ludden said.