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.

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."