In the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department, they are called “pyros” – training coordinators who at the press of a button and turn of a dial can control gas-produced flames over household props.
Last week, gauges were set to full blast as 29 rookie firefighters prepared to extinguish a bedroom fire at the department’s four-story training facility on Deans Bridge Road.
For every hose line that was advanced correctly and nozzle pattern that was set properly, flames vanished to reinforce the mastered exercises.
The class of 29 new firefighters is the first for the department since the Augusta Commission instituted a hiring freeze in 2011. Of the group, 23 were officially welcomed into the force Wednesday after six months of training; the remaining six will be phased in through September.
While training to ensure the safety of Richmond County’s 200,000 residents, these recruits have also helped homeowners potentially save hundreds of dollars on insurance rates.
According to criteria of the Insurance Services Office, a national underwriting organization, more firefighters in Richmond County could equal $100 to $500 in savings on homeowners’ insurance premiums.
Richmond County has a Class 3 rating on a 1-to-10 scale evaluating community fire efforts, with lower numbers representing exemplary service and higher totals indicating minimum criteria met, said Robert Andrews, the ISO’s vice president of community mitigation.
Half of Richmond County’s score relates to the level of staffing, employee training and equipment inspection in the fire department’s 19 stations, Andrews said. The rest deals with the condition and maintenance of hydrants and the existence of alternative water sources (40 percent), and the state of the software and supervision used to run the 911 system (10 percent).
In 2010, the last year the department was examined, the ISO found a number of areas needing improvement. The list included increased water pressure in hydrants; new, up-to-date equipment and a publicly owned 911 tower to ensure emergency communication would not go dark during a power outage.
Last week – two months after rushing in a special order from Fort Gordon to replace more than 50 expired air packs – Augusta Fire Chief Chris James said “all the corrections have been made,” except for the city purchase of a 911 radio tower.
Documents on past updates and the lapse in equipment testing are expected to be sent to the ISO, which reviews updated information at least every 24 months, Andrews said. The company will update records and, in a change announced this year, conduct a comprehensive on-site field survey in the next three to five years to determine whether local ratings should change, he said.
“A survey can also be requested by an insurer, or by a community, when substantial changes have occurred since the last visit,” he said.
An ISO evaluation presents an expert evaluation of fire training and inspection logs, city utility hookups and 911 operations in the sheriff’s office, records state.
The fire department employs more than 300 people, has a budget topping $18 million and provides 214 square miles of coverage through the use of 34 major pieces of equipment.
“It’s not only an evaluation of the fire department,” James said. “It’s one that spans the entire city.”
With a new training class in office, James said he sees upcoming evaluations as an opportunity.
Before 2010, Augusta was rated a Class 2 city, with the last inspection taking place in 1986, before consolidation. Then, the county was rated a Class 5. The difference between those ratings can be as much as $500 annually, according to ISO reports.
Though James said he has tempered his expectations for returning to a Class 2 rating, he has confidence in his recruits, who are certified in both firefighting and emergency medical services, which amounts to 58 percent of all the department’s calls.
Shaw Williams, the chief of the department’s training division, said just about every aspect of the fire service has a training component attached to it.
In the training facility, new recruits navigate a search-and-rescue maze to hone their senses, climb high-rise stairwells and elevator shafts to practice standpipe hookups and simulate hazardous burns to practice first aid.
“They practice every skill until they have it mastered,” Williams said. “If an individual is not properly trained on a piece of equipment, it could result in injury, the loss of their life, or the loss of a resident’s life.”
At the close of training, recruits must score 100 percent on a practical exam and pass a written or computerized test in both firefighting and EMS.
The state and the ISO require firefighters to log 244 hours of training each year in firefighting and 40 hours in EMS training every two years.
This year, the department reinstated its finishing exercise in Screven County, where coordinators ignite a house-shaped stack of wood pallets and put their recruits to the test to extinguish a live fire.
James said unless Augusta continues to increase its firefighting staff and find ways to relocate or build stations around new homes and subdivisions by Fort Gordon, he does not think the city’s rating will change greatly.
“It depends on how much money the commission is willing to invest in the county’s fire service,” he said.