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Galax Grants Administrator Brenda Marrah looked on Tuesday night as members of the Galax Volunteer Fire Department fitted themselves with brand new masks and air packs purchased with a federal grant that Marrah landed for the city.
Capt. Mike Ayers, a GVFD officer and the city’s new Recruitment and Retention Coordinator, demonstrated how the advanced pieces of equipment work.
“See the lights here?” asked Ayers as he held one of the masks at an angle. He explained how the different lights inside the mask can alert firefighters to dangers such as low air levels, and conditions that require immediate evacuation.
He stood two firefighters together, and demonstrated the simple series of clicks that can disconnect and reconnect air packs, and even join two lines to a single air pack.
“You have made us so safe,” Ayers told Marrah. He thanked her on behalf of the department for the many hours of hard work that she put into securing this year’s batch of grant money.
So far this year, grant awards from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have allowed the department to secure a new brush truck, air packs, masks and turnout gear, along with a new recruitment and retention coordinating position through the City of Galax. The department hopes to use these tools to motivate the team and expand the department to include more firefighters.
Keeping Firefighters Safe
The Galax Fire Department gathered outside of the old Guynn Furniture building on Grayson Street in Galax for a training session on July 16. The practice drills gave firefighters a chance to break in some of their new equipment.
In January, the department was awarded a $150,820 FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant. The grant required a 10 percent local match, bringing the final amount to $167,575.
These funds covered the purchase of 23 new sets of turnout gear, which includes boots, coats and pants; and 37 new air packs that provide oxygen to firefighters when they go into a burning building.
The new state-of-the-art equipment offers several safety features.
Ayers began by explaining the different warning lights inside the masks. The mask has a reader that measures the level of air left inside their air packs. Lights can warn the firefighter if they are getting low on oxygen and need to switch out packs.
Another feature allows constant communication with each firefighter after they have gone inside a building. Each piece of equipment is synched with a computer that is monitored outside. The software can track each individual firefighter’s status, and alert the team if the firefighter is down.
As Ayers explains these features, the equipment on one firefighter begins sounding an alarm. He gave the alarm a quick shake, silencing the beep.
Ayers pointed to the sensor. “If a firefighter stops moving for too long, that alarm will go off to let us know we have a downed firefighter,” he explained. He pointed to a different area inside the mask. “If a firefighter needs to evacuate for any reason, we can turn on this light from outside,” he said. When the warning light goes on, the firefighter knows to immediately exit the building.
Firefighters also have several methods to access more air in the event that their air packs run out. Ayers stood two firefighters together, and had them demonstrate how to hook their lines to a tank. A few clicks was all it took to transfer the lines from an empty tank to a full one, and it was even possible to connect two lines and allow two firefighters to share an air pack.
This equipment was considered a high priority for the department, as some of the old gear was around 16 years old.
Fire Chief David Hankley and Marrah noted that certain firefighters had been stuck in training limbo, because their gear was too outdated to use during the final exam. Not only will the new equipment do a better job of ensuring their safety, but it will also better allow the department to grow and add new members.
Recruiting and Retention
After completing the first phase of grant applications, Marrah set to work on the second phase, a SAFER award created by FEMA to provide staffing for fire and emergency response teams.
“This grant program started after the 9-11 tragedies,” Hankley told The Gazette. “About three years ago, they started under the SAFER grant making positions available for volunteer fire departments.”
One of these positions was for a recruitment and retention coordinator. “The number one issue for volunteer fire departments is recruiting and retaining volunteer members. The reason for that is because of the requirements of training, and the standards associated with being certified as a firefighter.”
The four-year federal grant provides funds for the recruitment and retention coordinating position, funding to obtain Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 certification, money for marketing and health exams for up to 30 new recruits. The award does not require a local match.
The recruitment and retention coordinating position is a paid job through the City of Galax. After receiving the grant money in March, the job was advertised, and the city received five applications.
One of those applicants was firefighter Mike Ayers, who has more than 20 years of work experience at Cockerham Oil, and 11 years of experience with the Galax Volunteer Fire Department.
Ayers was hired a few weeks ago, and since then has been settling into his new job nicely.
“This is my dream job. I’m very into the administrative side of everything, and being able to serve these guys is a great privilege,” he told the Gazette.
While Ayers is an employee of the city, as a volunteer firefighter, he says the position allows him to be on-call 24/7 to respond to emergencies.
Per the requirements laid out by the grant, the department needs 30 new volunteer recruits over the next four years. Ayers is already hard at work on several new projects to open the positions up to a wider audience.
Ayers is currently in discussions with Crossroads Institute to offer firefighter training classes for both adults and high school students. Ayers explained that firefighter training now takes up a lot of time. Students who already have an interest in the program will have a chance to get their training out of the way before they graduate and begin college, families and careers.
“Firefighter 1 is 180 hours of training, and that’s a lot for an individual who has a family and a job,” he said. “If you can get Firefighter 1 [certification] before you’re out of school, how much of a load does that take off?”
In addition, there are several smaller marketing and PR projects in the works. Today, Friday, the department will partner with the Galax Police Department to set up a public safety information table at Smoke on the Mountain in downtown Galax.
The department will also participate in the National Night Out community crime prevention event again this year.
Most importantly, Ayers has extended an open invitation to anyone who is interested in training to become a firefighter. “If anyone is interested in becoming a volunteer, I would love to talk to them,” he said.
To contact Ayers, call (276) 235-9580.