When it became apparent last year that New Mexicans would not be able to escape the novel coronavirus, Brad Brunson at the New Mexico Firefighters Training Academy began preparing for the challenges that training firefighters may encounter.
As the state’s Deputy Fire Marshal, Brunson oversees operations at the facility and having been with the academy for 21 years, he is well aware of the necessity of periodic training for new, as well as experienced firefighters.
“It’s been pretty challenging, but we’re still offering classes,” Brunson said. “We’re doing fewer than we were before because we’re having to prioritize what we could do.”
Ever since it was established, firefighters and EMS personnel from communities and municipalities across the state have relied on the academy at the end of Aspen Road in Socorro to help their crews brush up on their skills.
Under normal circumstances, approximately 4,000 first responders receive training each year, and although the majority of the students are members of some 400 fire departments in the state, many come from other states, Indian Nations, the private sector, and even Mexico.
Brunson says restrictions demanded by the pandemic have necessitated some adjustments to the normal scheduling of classes.
“In any classroom setting, social distancing is obviously a challenge, so we’ve cut the size of classes we do, as far as the indoor classroom-type sessions, where they’re actually having to sit inside,” Brunson said. “The other ones that are more hands-on, we’ll do a few more students, and because we’re doing them outside we’re able to accomplish that social distancing issue by spreading out. The facility is a pretty good size area, so we’re able to break them into smaller groups.”
He said all courses are being covered, from vehicle extraction to rope rescuing, but the most common are the fundamental ones.
“Right now we’re doing a lot of basic level stuff, hazmat awareness and operations classes, and then Fire I and II classes,” Brunson said. “Those classes are kind of the starting points for any firefighter. We prioritize those classes.
“So, yes, we’re operating similar to the way we were before,” he said. “We just don’t have stuff going on every single day of the week, but like right now we have the Fire I and II classes going on at the academy.”
Residents of Socorro have first-hand knowledge that those outdoor classes are in session by the intermittent clouds of black smoke west of town.
Although all training that goes on at the academy is vital, “some of the other classes maybe aren’t as necessary to a lot of departments, like rope rescuing or hazmat tech or something like that. We’re still doing those but we’ve cut back a bit,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the number of students coming in has lowered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been reduced a little bit,” Brunson said. “We’re leaving a lot of it up to local jurisdictions if they want, or need, to send people or not. That’s up to them.”
In light of that, the academy also schedules training sessions outside of the academy.
“We’re doing a few classes out around the state at local departments, and we’re doing that based on whatever that department or jurisdiction’s policy is as far as pandemic safety policies,”
Brunson said. “So, we have to keep active in that regard, because those local jurisdictions need to have guys trained at those levels to function as a fire department.”
With smaller indoor class sizes – 12 to 16 people across two classrooms – the academy has had to start bringing in more instructors.
“We have a very small full-time staff, and with 400 fire departments, we have to bring in adjunct instructors. These are basically firefighters who have retired that we hire on a contract basis. And sometimes there are departments that will volunteer some of their instructional staff to come down and help us teach classes,” he said. “We’ve had folks from the Rio Rancho Fire Department that are helping us out, and a retired Bernalillo County Chief is doing our safety stuff this week. We’re having to bring in more instructors but we’re making it work.”
Web-based firefighter instruction is also part of the pandemic adjustments.
“They can do the didactic learning – the classroom – part of it online,” Brunson said. “After that, since firefighting is hands-on, we have them in town for a couple of weeks to get their skills down.”
All courses are designed to meet standards created by the National Fire Protection Association and to assist firefighters and their fire departments comply with mandatory training requirements set by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“We’ve had to change the daily schedule,” Brunson said. “Instead of starting at eight, we start at nine, and then break off a little earlier in the afternoon. That way our maintenance staff can go in there and decontaminate the whole facility and clean up the classrooms. Make sure everything’s disinfected and all that. We make sure the students go home as healthy as they came in.”
Weekends can also see firefighters coming to the academy to hone their skills.
“We have a weekend once a month where we open the facility up so people can come in and use the burn building,” he said.
The burn building is made of concrete with doors and windows of steel, and is segmented to represent an apartment, a retail business, and a warehouse setting. Refrigerators, stoves, and even an elevator shaft are used to re-create the behavior or different types of blazes.
Fires are created with stacks of wooden pallets.
Brunson said that no matter the pandemic level the school continues to be an integral part of firefighting training throughout the state. Both volunteer and salaried firefighters benefit from intensive training classes, in the classroom and live exercises, he said.
“We call around and put ourselves out to those guys,” Brunson said. “We also have Zoom meetings with those chiefs to answer questions and make sure they know we are still open for business and that we’re still available to assist them as much as we can.”
The New Mexico Firefighters Training Academy was created as a part of the State Fire Marshal’s Office by legislative action in 1987. It was decided that the state-of-the-art facility was to be constructed in Socorro, and its doors were opened to firefighters in January 1989. The academy is currently a Bureau of the Public Regulation Commission’s Insurance Division.
According to the PRC, the academy’s mission is to meet the needs of “a complex and dynamic fire service by providing training programs of the highest quality. The primary objective is to develop the basic and advanced skills necessary for emergency responders to best serve the citizens and guests of New Mexico.”