Swedish Students Learn Ropes in North America


Just weeks before completing their final year of secondary school in Sweden, 27 students completed a 21-day journey across North America to learn from firefighters in Canada and the U.S.

The students, who attend Bobergsgymnasiet Ange -- the equivalent of a high school that's focused on fire, search and rescue, and medicine -- learned forest firefighting in British Columbia, rode in Montana, trained in Minneapolis and learned about aircraft firefighting in Chicago. The trip culminated with a visit to the World Trade Center site in New York City before flying home.

This is the first time this group has traveled to North America to learn about the fire service here. The second-year students have made various trips to Estonia to learn about forest firefighting work and to Stockholm, Sweden's largest city. Next year the third year students will again return to North America. 

"All of these kids are pioneers," said Curt Malmsten, associate professor and the head trainer at the school. "We've had programs for firefighting and emergency medicine, but we want them to go abroad to learn another language, learn another terminology and learn about the other technologies available to rescuers."

Malmsten, who is a medical doctor, also served 15 years as a firefighter with the Stockholm Fire Department. He left the department as a senior officer to head up the Bobersggymnasiet school in Ange, about 300 miles from Stockholm.

The students are part of AWARE International (Ange, Wilderness, Advanced Rescue Education), which is run by Doctus. About 100 students enroll each year and learn about a variety of first responder, advanced rescue and emergency medicine and firefighting skills. Entry into the school is tough and Malmsten said students have to have high grades and a strong work ethic.

Malmsten had hoped to broaden the students' education before their graduation. Last year he started reaching out to various departments and personnel. Last summer he visited the locations to size up their opportunities to learn. "I think it will really give them something to think about," Malmsten said. "We want them to be the ambassadors of the program here (in the U.S.) and back home. They can meet the citizens, provide them with education about smoke detectors and safety."

Malmsten said that 25 percent of their schooling is spent on firefighting, emergency medicine, helicopter operations, search and rescue and other similar disciplines. The students conduct hands-on training at an old school building on campus using two pumpers. The campus also has several ambulances for students to immerse themselves in emergency medicine. "The training is comparable to that of which the volunteer firefighters undergo in Sweden."

They landed in Vancouver, British Colombia on April 11 and spent six days with retired forestry firefighter and consultant Doug Richardson, learning about forest firefighting operations, helicopters, communications and the history of Canada. The education was both hands-on and classroom-based at the McQueen Lake Environment Centre near Kamloops.

From there they took a bus to Montana where they spent five days riding with Great Falls Fire/Rescue. "This stop paralleled with the training that they have already received," Malmsten said. They slept in the departments' stations and worked hand-in-hand on more than 80 runs with Great Falls crews. "We felt it was best that they stayed in the firehouse to get a better sense of the way they work here," he said.

Their responses included several medical emergencies, a vehicle crash and a camper fire. "I think it's fun to see the differences in the U.S.," said student Robin Svensson. "There are just some small differences, like the hose connections."

Great Falls Fire Marshal Doug Bennyhoff said the Doctus program paid for their overtime costs to have 12 firefighters stay back and teach the students. The kids spent time in four stations and eight hours each day focused on EMS, vehicle extrication, low angle rescue and hazardous materials.

Stina Loo-Ericsson said she was surprised to see the fire departments running on medical calls. The fire department provides a first responder service for a third-party ambulance service. "We are not used to the firefighters on the ambulance (calls). In Sweden, the firefighters do not do that. It's separate." She added, "We do all of the medical training. We do all of the firefighting training. All of the stuff we have done in America, we have done at school in Sweden."

Bennyhoff recalled, "They would go on a two-hour ride-along shift and when a call came in, they'd look back at those who weren't going and laugh," as those left in the station were jealous.

When the students arrived in Great Falls, the firefighters cooked a traditional meal of tacos for the students. As they prepared to travel out, the students then prepared a traditional meal of Swedish meatballs and other local treats as a thank you.

"They wanted some fun time here," said Minneapolis Assistant Chief John Fruetel, after the students spent three days in the Twin Cities. "We introduced them to some of the structural firefighting that we do here in the U.S. and they sure got a kick out of it. It was different for them, but they sure liked it."

The group divided in half and spent one day at the Minneapolis Fire Academy, where they had the chance to stretch hoselines and perform searches in the burn building. Working side-by-side with Minneapolis training officers, some of the students had their first taste of structural firefighting. Afterwards, they participated in several hours of rope rescue and hazmat training at Station 6.

"They were well prepared and trained in rescue. We have some different equipment here in the states and they were excited to work with it," Fruetel said, referring to brake bars and some of the lowering devices that Minneapolis units carry.

The other half of the group took a trip to the Bill & Bonnie Daniel's Firefighters Hall & Museum, which was an eye-opening experience of the rich history of the American Fire Service. "It was pretty amazing to see the equipment from the 1800's," said student David Granberg. "The technology they are using is amazing compared to the old firefighting at home." They also visited the site of the Interstate 35W Bridge Collapse.

"They were pretty self-sufficient," Fruetel said, as they students spent several nights in a former fire station that's a temporary home to the Minneapolis Training Division. They came with sleeping bags and also their own turnout gear.

They left Minneapolis by bus and were next going to receive hands-on crash fire rescue training at Chicago O'Hare Airport. A portion of that training was also set to talk about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and Malmsten said, "To see how the world changed."

He estimates that about 2,000 students have gone through the AWARE program since it began in 1993.

"At every fire brigade I visit in the countryside, I always find one of my old students," he said. He estimates that at least 20 former students have risen to the rank of senior fire official.

"They want you to have the background from the school," said Svensson, of getting hired by departments back in Sweden.

Loo-Ericson, who already has a part-time job with her hometown fire department in Sveg when she returns, said her education and the trip to the U.S. are invaluable. "Some stations feel that schools don't prepare us. It's too much theory, not enough of the practical," Loo-Ericsson said.

Malmsten said he chose the U.S. locations based on their diversity, such as Great Falls' units responding in conjunction with EMS and their response to not just fires, but technical rescue incidents.

"One of the reasons we chose (Minneapolis) was that the department can serve as an inspiration to the female students," Malmsten said of the city's diverse ranks. The city operates several female-only crews, which is not commonplace in Sweden.

"We've got a couple of apparatus that are fully staffed by female crews, so we brought them up to talk with the students," said Frutel. "I think it really impressed the girls and it made them realize that they can take on the roles, just like we do here."

Loo-Ericcson was one of about 12 girls on the trip. "I thought I was going to be the only girl. I was so happy when I arrived (at the school) and happened to see all of the girls. It was a relief on me."

"They really showed us a few things, " Bennyhoff said. "They really value their education in Sweden and these kids were so well advanced. It's pretty eye-opening."