JEFFERSON CITY, MO – Recent tornadoes have wreaked havoc on communities throughout the Midwest, stretching emergency services thin. Each year, the Missouri Summer Fire School helps first responders prepare for the many challenges they might face in the aftermath of natural disasters and other emergencies.
In June, more than 500 firefighters and first responders from 17 states attended the 81st Summer Fire School, organized by the University of Missouri Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute (MU FRTI) and held on the campus of Lincoln University in Jefferson City.
Kevin Zumwalt, associate director of MU FRTI, says the school concentrates on hands-on, practical skills, covering topics that extend beyond putting out fires, including technical rescue, hazardous materials, command and control of emergency operations, and house-to-house and wide-area searches.
When a widespread disaster strikes, responders may have to draw on a number of different skills, Zumwalt says.
"How we extricate people from automobiles and school buses is going to relate to a disaster situation such as a tornado," he says. "Even the trench rescue class provides fundamental skills applicable to getting someone out of a collapsed structure."
Teamwork is vital for effective response to a large-scale emergency, Zumwalt says. Many types of first responders have to work together, including fire service, law enforcement and emergency management personnel.
"We really emphasize safety in disaster situations," says Ken Vomund, fire school instructor and assistant chief of the O'Fallon Fire Protection District. "You don't go in a house by yourself to search something. We work together as a team and we leave together as a team."
The school draws everyone from rookies to seasoned pros with decades of experience.
"You get them all in class together and there is no age difference when it really comes down to it," Zumwalt says. "The new guys are learning from the old guys, the old guys are learning from the new guys, and it's a good mix."
Fire school students are expected to share what they learn when they return to their stations, extending the program's reach.
"If they train three or four neighboring departments as well as their own, we really hit a multitude of firefighters in the state of Missouri," says instructor Robert Woody, a retired fire chief from Fort Leonard Wood. "That's the key here, to get the word out about the training."
MU began conducting trainings for Missouri fire departments in the 1930s. Today, MU FRTI provides emergency response training on a wide range of subjects, including emergency medical care, industrial safety and counterterrorism.
"There's always new stuff to be learned," Zumwalt says. "Whether you're a one-year firefighter or a 40-year firefighter, you can always learn something new."
Jason Vance, Writer
University of Missouri Extension