How long has Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One been waiting for its own training facility? Schematics for the building, included in the fire district’s capital facilities plan, are dated 2009.
The district had saved up enough money to build the training facility back then. But the Great Recession of 2008-’09 struck. As public agency revenues plummeted, district leaders sensibly elected to use the savings to retain firefighters.
Gig Harbor Fire leadership and firefighters say the district still needs the long-sought live-fire training facility. If voters approve an $80 million bond request on the Aug. 2 ballot, they will finally get it.
A rendering of what Gig Harbor Fire and Medic One’s new training center would look like if voters approve a bond issue next month. Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One
The 20-year bond would cost the owner of a $500,000 home a projected $9.90 per month. In addition to the training facility, proceeds would be used to renovate GHFMO’s Stations 53 (Fox Island), 57 (Crescent Valley), 58 (Swede Hill), and 59 (Artondale).
Station 51 on Kimball Drive, the district’s busiest, would be demolished and replaced in the same location. Read more about the station improvements here.
The Pierce County Auditor’s Office mailed ballots to area voters on Friday, July 15. They must be returned or postmarked by Aug. 2.
The live-fire training facility would comprise 17,000 square feet, with four stories and a training tower. Bond funds also would build an 11,400-square-foot support building nearby.
The new buildings would go up on property already owned by Gig Harbor Fire, on the same Bujacich Road campus as Station 58 and the district’s headquarters.
The training facility would allow Gig Harbor Fire to conduct “live fire” training. Firefighters already do that, of course, but it’s a lot more complicated without a local training facility.
Firefighters must participate in live fire training at least once every three years to maintain their certification. Currently, they have to leave the district to get the training done.
Gig Harbor firefighters typically do their live-fire training at the Washington State Fire Training Center in the east King County town of North Bend.
“But to do that we obviously have to do it off-duty,” GHFMO Chief Dennis Doan said. “We have to pay overtime, we have to pay instructors, we have to drive two hours to North Bend to do training, then go back. Logistically, it’s very expensive to do that.”
It also means those firefighters aren’t available to respond to local emergencies, since they’re training an hour’s drive away.
“The benefits for the citizens would be that we would keep our firefighters in-jurisdiction for most if not all of our training,” said GHFMO Fire Commission Chairman Alex Wilsie, who is an assistant chief with the Tacoma Fire Department. “We constantly send our firefighters to other places to accomplish the training we need to have to accomplish the certifications they need to have. This facility would allow us to stay in-house.”
Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One firefighters pack up gear after a drill at the Gig Harbor Marina on June 22, 2022. Vince Dice
Gig Harbor Fire officials say the local training facility would also allow the district to train more frequently and to stage its own fire academy, streamlining the hiring process.
And since the plans and permitting have been around for awhile, there’s a deadline. The permitting expires in 2024 if work isn’t started, Doan said.
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“We’ve already spent a significant amount of money on these plans and the permits,” Wilsie said. “The recession forced us to halt our process. Now we just want to finish it under the initial process and plan.”
Because the district lacks training facilities, it works with other departments to train new hires. Gig Harbor firefighters typically go through a five-month training academy before working shifts.
Gig Harbor delayed a recent hiring round because other area fire agencies didn’t have any academies scheduled.
“I have to do my hiring around their hiring, not when I need to hire,” Doan said. The new facility would eliminate that roadblock.
And while local firefighters make sure to get enough training hours to maintain certifications and meet regulations, the situation makes it difficult to do more than the minimum required.
“I don’t want to be a minimum-standards fire department,” Doan said.
Live-fire training is important because it allows responders to replicate the sorts of scenarios they may encounter on the job.
“When you have a burn tower (of the sort proposed in the bond issue), you can come in and run full scenarios,” said firefighter Ryan Shervanick, secretary of Local 3390 of the International Association of Firefighters. “Everything from propane-based props to wood material inside a concrete building, like pallets. The way the buildings are engineered, we’re actually able to get real heat, flames, smoke, to replicate real conditions.”
Different areas of the building will help firefighters practice responding to fires at single-family homes, apartment buildings and commercial structures. A garage will allow drills on responding to a garage fire with a vehicle parked inside.
If voters approve a bond request on next month’s ballot, a new training center would be built next to Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One’s Station 58. Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One
Different roofing material will help firefighters train on how that variable effects response. Fake power lines will connect to the building, since real power lines can get in the way during a fire. One side of the building will simulate a split-level home.
For each scenario, Shervanick said, “we kind of have a specific play we run, like a football team.” The new building would allow firefighters to “practice and play that out.”
Gig Harbor firefighters often practice those plays in their station parking lots. That’d be like Shervanick’s hypothetical football team practicing in a cafeteria.
“They do their best and I’m proud of them, but this training facility will be a game-changer,” Doan said. “Our firefighters will be more safe because the continuing, ongoing training. If they’re more safe, that’ll make our community safer.”
Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One officials will answer questions about the bond at two upcoming meetings.
For more information visit Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One’s website, email Chief Dennis Doan at [email protected]harborfire.org or call (253) 851-3111.
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