Charleston Chief, Officers Train in Maryland

Chief Rusty Thomas and the department has come under sharp criticism since nine firefighters were killed battling a furniture store blaze in June.

ROCKVILLE, MD-- Four firefighters are going through various training facets here for the next few days. But, these are not your typical recruits.

They wore white shirts, and their patches on their sleeves sport the logo of Charleston Fire Department.

Chief Rusty Thomas said it would be an understatement to say he hit the ground running when his contingent arrived. "I've heard so much about this place from the others who've had the opportunity to come here."

Enhanced training -- especially in incident command -- is essential for the department to advance, the chief said during a break Wednesday at the Montgomery County Public Safety Training facility.

Thomas and the department has come under sharp criticism since nine firefighters were killed battling a furniture store blaze in June.

A panel of national fire service experts is reviewing the department, and have made a number of recommendations. Thomas has implemented many including response and staffing changes.

"June 18 changed me, my men, the community..."

Thomas started his day at the Maryland facility by addressing recruits. "I told them what happened. I told them to embrace training all the time because their lives will depend on it. I told them to learn all they can, and that it's an ongoing process."

The Charleston officers will be riding along with incident commanders in Montgomery County this week to observe. "Incredible. What an opportunity," said Assistant Chief Robert O'Donald.

They also will be involved in a myriad of activities including tabletop exercises, water supply and flashover training.

"We sat around with their commanders and we were talking about how we do things. That sharing of ideas was incredible, and we both learned something," Thomas said.

When Charleston firefighters switch channels on their portable radios, a voice announces each position. "They (Montgomery County) thought that was a great idea."

Open, frank discussions were evident following a tabletop scenario. O'Donald asked about RIT procedures in Montgomery, and shook his head in agreement as Assistant Chief Greg DeHaven explained.

DeHaven added that the dispatcher should be reminding the incident commander about a personnel accountability report every 20 minutes. "You have to think about your people especially if they've been working really hard for 15 to 20 minutes."

The commanders discussed the use of accountability tags, and how procedures vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

O'Donald said it was difficult to find words to describe his impression. "It's incredible they've opened their doors to us. I'm getting an idea how and why things are being done a certain way. I'm looking at policies and procedures, things we want to do."

Montgomery County Chief Tom Carr said his department is happy to be hosts. "This is good for us as well. What a powerful opportunity. Anytime you get members of the fire service together it's good. Networking is what it's all about. You can hear about what's going on in their world, and share how you've handled things."