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“OK, Safety! Give them the go! Down! Watch yourselves!”
The situation is tense as the first volunteer firefighters of the day crawl their way into the Baxter County Fire Training Center.
A hazy layer of smoke has filled the air as the smell of burning pallets and hay fills the lungs of those waiting their turn to enter the training building on this particularly warm Dec. morning. A thick cloud of black smoke pours out of the first-floor windows.
The building itself is made out of thick concrete. Its windows are little more than holes covered by heavy sheets of metal.
Long hoses are laid out in front of the building, the whine of the water pumps on several of the county’s fire trucks rumble in the background. At the back of the building, several firefighters are at work stuffing pallets with hay in preparation for the next burn. A can of diesel fuel sits off to the side, waiting for its turn to set the building ablaze again.
Dozens of firefighters linger out front. The sounds of their oxygen tanks fill the air with each breath.
“Get down low! Hit the deck!” shouted Gassville Fire Chief Michael Gloztl to the two-man team inside the building.
The pair is down low as they engage the fire in the back corner of the building. Water hisses inside as they force open a window for ventilation, shoving smoke and a steady stream of water into the air.
Temperatures inside are hot, sometimes reaching 1200 degrees at the base of the fire. The fire is out as quickly as it was set, and the crew exits the building to allow the next team to enter.
“There’s nothing like this,” said Dwayne Smith of Northeast Lakeside Fire Department. “This is as close as you can get to having a structure fire without burning somebody’s house and still be in a controlled, relatively safe environment and somebody not having a bad day at their home. If somebody’s house is burning, it’s a bad day. We can burn this building a thousand times and not bother it.”
The morning’s blaze is a part of a live-fire training exercise being put on by the Baxter County Fire Chief’s Association. Crew from every department in Baxter County was at the scene to catch up on much-needed live training.
Glotzl, who also serves as president of the association, is in charge of the scene as crews begin to set up for the next run inside the house.
“We’re trying to make it as realistic as possible without anybody getting hurt,” Glotzl said. “That’s the key here. Learning some lessons, fire behavior, managing nozzle reaction.
Training began at 9 a.m. and lasted until the afternoon. Firefighters were tasked with clearing fires set in both the upstairs and downstairs portion of the training building.
Baxter County’s fire departments are composed of men and women from all backgrounds of life. This training session included firefighters as young as 20 years old. The oldest firefighter attending the training was 61.
The National Fire Protection Association’s 2019 report revealed an aging volunteer workforce across the United States, with 50% of the 1 million firefighters nationally being between 30-49 years old. The report found roughly 64% of those firefighters were volunteers.
The average age of volunteer firefighters in Baxter County is 50. The number has led to an increased push in recruitment from Glotzl and the Fire Chief’s Association.
“The fire service is a very, very rewarding place to put other people in front of yourself,” Glotzl said. “It’s a selfless thing. It’s a very rewarding thing. We encourage you to contact your local fire department and find out how you can serve your community. We need everyone from Ph.D.’s to ditch diggers. There’s a place for every single person.”
High call volume and a career that heavily leans into EMS services over fighting fires are the most typical complaints from those that choose to leave service in favor of other options. Gassville alone receives 300 calls a year for its all-volunteer force, with roughly 75% of those calls being EMS-related.
Still, some of the younger generations are choosing to volunteer in Baxter County, donning their gear and answering calls in hopes of keeping the tradition alive.
“My father was a firefighter, and I thought it was cool,” said Huett, a 24-year-old volunteer with the Northeast Lakeside Fire Department. “So, I joined, and it turned into trying to help the community.”
While most of the training firefighters were seasoned veterans with years underneath their belt, some were still new to fighting fires. Gassville volunteer Crystal Baker waited on the sidelines during this training session, waiting for her turn to fight a fire for the first time.
Up to this point in her career, she had only answered the call for one fire, a shed fire that was already under control by the time she arrived.
When her time in the building came, she donned her equipment, entered the pitch-black burning room on the bottom floor, and successfully put out her first fire.
“It’s kind of scary,” Baker said. “I like helping my community, and my first husband was a firefighter. My son wants to become one. I learned how to keep my cool and overcome my fear of the face mask. I feel good about myself now that I’ve been in there.”
After the crew finished their exercises, they formed a circle to discuss what each member had learned that day. Dropping their gear and grabbing water, each member expressed their thoughts and questions to the crowd.
Glotzl and many of the captains attending the event made sure to use the opportunity to impart their extensive knowledge to the younger firefighters in the crowd.
“We train like we fight. That’s an old adage, but it’s true,” Glotzl said.