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If you are a firefighter, you (hopefully) went through a fire academy or a training program to qualify you to do this stuff. Assuming that would be most of you, some of your instructors made a real difference. They led you, pushed you and were tough on you so you would understand how serious this job is. I consider myself really lucky to have had men like Eddie Bennett, Lou Cafone, Ed DiMonda, Nelson Finkelman, Leon Kane, Ralph Lynch, Pat McGrath, Joe Morris, Artie Rypka and Herman Wiegand train me in the early 1970s. These instructors made an impact on me and, as this month’s close-call firefighter discusses, taught us to survive.
We extend our sincere appreciation to the officers and members of the Peoria, IL, Fire Department. Specifically, we thank Firefighter Blaise Steffen and his wife, Shannon, for their personal accounts and Chief of Department Kent M. Tomblin, Assistant Chief Greg Walters and Captain Richard Booth for their assistance.
The Peoria Fire Department is staffed by more than 200 career firefighters responsible for fire suppression, rescue, emergency medical service, hazardous material mitigation, fire prevention education, fire investigation, inspections and community relations for a community of just under 120,000. The department has 12 stations running more than 17,000 calls annually. The Peoria Fire Training Academy is a regional training site for the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI).
The following account is by Firefighter Blaise Steffen:
I always wanted to be a firefighter. When I was real young, my dad got hired onto the fire department. I loved to go to the firehouse and see the trucks and the guys he worked with. I joined a volunteer fire department and took fire classes on weekends and during the summer. I went to college to get a degree in fire science and tested everywhere I could.
When I got a call from the Peoria Fire Department, I took the job and went straight to their academy. The instructors were great. The very first week, they had us put on our gear and timed us to see who could do it the fastest. As soon as we were done, they checked us inch by inch to make sure we had everything on perfect and if we didn’t we started over. We did burns and drills in the fire tower and every time, the instructors preached about wearing our gear in full and properly. They always talked about “Maydays” and what to do if we were ever in that situation. They would randomly pull someone off to the side and tell us to go lie in a corner until a crew found us. We always had to be alert because if we heard that PASS (personal alert safety system) device going off, we knew we had a downed firefighter.
Another drill we did was orientation and what to do if we got lost. They taught us to control our breathing, set off our PASS device and immediately call for a “Mayday.” They taught us to pay attention to our surroundings. None of us realized that our fire academy training would help save my life three years later. Our fire instructors mattered.
Seven weeks later, we graduated from the fire academy and went on duty. I walked into the firehouse around 6:20 that morning for a shift that started at 7 o’clock. I introduced myself to the firefighters and went down to check out my machine (apparatus). At 6:40, the tones went off for a house fire. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I knew if I was getting my first fire 20 minutes before my first shift started, this was going to be a great career. Later, I was stationed on a truck. We worked out together, trained together, watched dumb movies together – typical firehouse. Life could not have been any better.
One Saturday, I went into work like any normal day. As I went to bed that night (of course, hoping to get a fire) around 10, I called my wife and told her about the day and planned what to do tomorrow. Then I went to sleep.