A team of firefighters with Lewis County Fire District 6 burst out the front door of an unoccupied residence on Jackson Highway, dragging the limp body of their incident commander out of the smoke.
Together, they quickly maneuver him out of his gear and begin chest compressions while the rest of the station watches on. An alarm rings over the comms. Suddenly, the incident commander sits up — unharmed — as Lt. Kyle Eiswald calls an end to the training exercise.
“It was really ugly watching from the other side,” he tells them as they gather around to review the exercise, “but you did it.”
Monday’s training exercise was a chance for firefighters with Fire District 6 to practice through officer-down and search and rescue situations.
“It’s kind of one of those things where it doesn’t happen a lot but when it does happen, you need to be prepared and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said firefighter Daniel Ford.
Monday’s training took place in an unoccupied, single-story house that the building’s owner gave District 6 permission to train in. Due to Lewis County burning restrictions and the structure’s proximity to the highway, firefighters can’t actually set the building on fire, but they can do search and rescue training and other simulations inside.
Trash bags have been secured over the windows to simulate low-light conditions typical in a house full of smoke. Between training exercises, obstacles are added and rearranged inside the house so firefighters can practice navigating unknown terrain.
Firefighters run training exercises together at least once a week, with additional station-wide drills held once a month, to review proper techniques, hone skills and to run through difficult situations in a safe environment where firefighters can make mistakes and ask questions.
“Just like anybody else, we learn from those mistakes. We have to learn from those mistakes,” said District 6 Public Information Officer Laura Hanson, who added that firefighters hope they make mistakes in training instead of out on a call.
Fire District 6, which serves Adna and rural Chehalis, is primarily staffed by volunteer firefighters, with 19 currently on the roster. Starting this month, the station gained its first two resident firefighters — Ford, who has two years’ experience as a volunteer firefighter with District 6, and Emma Veach, who first began working as a volunteer firefighter in Napavine in 2019.
“I’m still getting the hang of it, but it’s fun,” said Veach, who maintains a job at a preschool outside of her firefighter duties.
Residents live at the station full-time and work between eight and 10 24-hour shifts per month.
“I’m always around the guys. I like hanging around them a lot, and I have the opportunity to go on more calls now and learn a lot more things,” Ford said.
Every crew member at Fire District 6 has a different background and a different set of skills to add to their team. One volunteer’s regular job is with American Medical Response (AMR) and he volunteers his off-hours as an emergency medical technician, Hanson said. Another firefighter is a retired career firefighter from another fire district. Veach worked in physical therapy before switching over to a career in education, and she helps her crewmates with their physical wellness.
“There’s a role for everybody,” Hanson said, adding that regular training is essential to figuring out how each firefighter’s strengths and weaknesses can work together.
“It’s a family,” she added
Each firefighter is trained in multiple firefighting roles so they can find what best suits them, and so they’re prepared in an officer-down situation like Fire District 6 practiced Monday.
“You might be doing my job because I can’t do it. I might be doing your job because you can’t do it,” Eiswald said.
Hanson said the stress of situations like these, or the myriad of other emotionally-taxing situations firefighters can come across on a call, can be intimidating to new recruits.
“There’s a lot of things that could be intimidating to a volunteer, but the training is key to overcoming those fears,” she said.
Volunteers go through hours of training before they’re ever scheduled for a shift, and training continues to take up evening and weekend hours even after they’re established as volunteer firefighters.
While the time commitment can be a deterrent to those thinking about volunteering, Veach encourages people to give it a try.
“I’ve been interested for longer than I’ve been into it,” Veach said, “and if you figure out it’s not for you … it’s not a waste of time because you figured something out.”
Anyone interested in volunteering with Fire District 6 can find more information on the station’s website, lcfd6.org.
When asked what advice he’d give to people thinking about volunteering, or to volunteers thinking about becoming resident firefighters, Ford said, “I’d tell them to do it. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great way to serve your community.”
Another piece of advice he’d give, he said, “is to always be constantly learning.”