Heartland Fire Training Facility: 29 Years Of Cooperative Spirit

Just east of San Diego, a Joint Powers Authority exists for the purpose of providing a training facility for local fire departments. What makes this facility unusual is the fact that it is funded and operated by a Joint Powers Authority, which consists of the cities of El Cajon, Santee and La Mesa, and the fire protection districts of Lakeside and San Miguel.

Fire agencies today are beginning to realize the benefits of sharing the costs of fire service delivery, including equipment purchasing, automatic aid agreements, operations, emergency medical services, code enforcement and the like. So, one might ask, “What makes this training facility so special?” The answer is that this particular facility was pioneered 29 years ago and continues to operate successfully to this day. This could be one of the nation’s first practical applications of a joint venture between five different fire agencies.

On Dec. 1, 1973, an agreement was made between the cities of El Cajon and La Mesa and the Lakeside, Santee and Spring Valley fire protection districts. Subsequent to that, the agreement was amended to change the name of Spring Valley to San Miguel and recognize the incorporation of the City of Santee.

These East County agencies represent “Zone 4” of the San Diego County Mutual Aid Agreement, and as such are named “Heartland.” Thus, the name became the Heartland Fire Training Facility. The name was later changed to the Thomas H. Owen, Heartland Fire Training Facility after it was dedicated to one of its founders, former El Cajon Fire Chief Tom Owen.

The authority is governed by a commission comprised of elected officials from each jurisdiction, along with a Board of Fire Chiefs that includes each respective chief. The annual budget to operate the facility is paid for by each agency based on a formula using the number of personnel from each agency. This number represents a percentage of the overall budget. If an agency’s personnel represents 25% of the total number of personnel using the facility, then that agency pays 25% of the budget.

Since the facility has been in existence, it has had a reputation statewide as a premier regional fire training center. Occupying about four acres owned by the City of El Cajon, the facility consists of a five-story drill tower, an environmental building capable of performing “hot” fires, a pump test area, a classroom facility seating 30 people and outfitted with video editing equipment, and a digital simulator used for testing and training.

The facility has been instrumental in improving all aspects of emergency response by the Heartland fire agencies and has been one of the main focal points in bringing the departments together in an efficient operational manner for purposes of sharing resources under the Heartland Automatic Aid Agreement. One example of how this is accomplished is the “Color Group” method of scheduling training sessions. The 23 engines, five trucks and six paramedic ambulances use the facility at least twice a month per division on regularly scheduled drill days. These units are divided into six color groups and are scheduled for three hours at the facility per training session. Truck companies are rotated to different color groups quarterly. This gives personnel exposure to the different trucks within the zone. During this time, the companies may be assigned to specialized training such as high-rise, confined space and hazardous materials or work on individual training that cannot be performed at their stations.

As the fire service continues to change, and innovation with regard to the sharing of resources marches forward, the Thomas H. Owen, Heartland Fire Training Facility Authority stands as a pioneer in successful cooperative spirit. The Heartland Fire Training Facility is proud to be a host for Firehouse World 2003 during its hands-on workshops when the annual conference comes to San Diego in February.

For more information about the Heartland Fire Training Facility call Rich Henry, training manager, at 619-441-1693 or, in the near future, visit the website at www.heartlandfiretraining.org.

Rich Henry is the training manager at the Heartland Fire Training Facility. He recently retired as the fire chief for the City of El Cajon, CA, after 30 years of service. Henry rose through the ranks of the department, holding the ranks of firefighter, paramedic, engineer, captain, fire marshal, battalion chief and in 1995 was promoted to chief. He is the past chair of the Heartland Fire Chiefs, the Heartland Communications Board of Chiefs and the Heartland Zone Coordinator.