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Fire Drill

Federal Way firefighter Chris Burdyshaw doesn’t sit in the reclining easy chairs at Station 3.

He does more housekeeping than the senior firefighters. He cleans the engines more often.

He has to carry the groceries, but at least he gets to eat at the table.

Such is the life of a boot.

Burdyshaw is the only first-year apprentice firefighter at Federal Way Fire Department’s Station 3.

The department has four boots who will be getting off probation this year — Burdyshaw included — and eight new hires.

They’re called boots because they’re employed at-will for their first year. “They can boot you if they want,” Burdyshaw said.

He started working with Station 3 on April 2 last year. In 11 days, he won’t be a boot anymore.

Burdyshaw owned a contracting firm in Port Orchard, a quiet, mostly-rural community in Kitsap County, for eight years. But he started thinking maybe he didn’t want to do construction his whole life.

He happened to work with a man who volunteered as a firefighter, so Burdyshaw volunteered with a fire district in Port Orchard.

Being a firefighter is sort of the opposite of being a contractor, but Burdyshaw said his construction work fed into fighting fires.

“If you know how they’re put up, you kind of know how they’re going to come down,” he said.

Despite some minor mishaps — funny now, in retrospect, like the time Kitsap 7 volunteers accidentally took the top off the wrong car during an extraction exercise — Burdyshaw said he enjoyed being a firefighter.

He stayed three years.

Burdyshaw tested to be a firefighter in Federal Way in 2000, but he didn’t make it. He tested again in 2001 and made the cut.

Federal Way Fire doesn’t require previous experience, but most applicants either have served as volunteers or have put themselves through some fire school.

The application process is pretty competitive. Burdyshaw said there were 2,000 people vying for the job he ultimately got.

Federal Way’s boots are sent to a nine-week academy, usually at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, where they learn basic firefighting techniques and run some live-fire practice drills.

When they come back to Federal Way, boots attend another six-week academy locally before they’re assigned a station.

Then the work begins.

Boots master about 170 different objectives, like administration and fire suppression, during their first year. They study from a Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee binder, euphemistically called the Booter Book.

“The emphasis is on fire fighting, but they want you to know a little bit about everything,” Burdyshaw said.

“They pack an incredible amount of information in their heads,” said Federal Way Fire spokeswoman Debbie Goetz.

Boots graduate to firefighters after their first year, but they continue working on Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee objectives, which get progressively more advanced.

By the end of three years, apprentices should be first-class firefighters. It sounds like a superlative, but it’s a classification to which pay raises are tied.

During their second and third years of training, firefighter apprentices get to step away from pulling hose — a ubiquitous first-year task — and try their hands at more exciting work, like using the fire engine.

Regardless of seniority, training never stops.

In late February, Federal Way Fire burned down a barn, a two-story house and an attached two-car garage on 21st Avenue Southwest as part of a training exercise.

The fire department got a demolition permit from the city and removed asbestos from the structures before bringing in the apprentice firefighters and students from Bates Technical College.

Lt. Chris Murphy carried a propane torch into the home to light small room fires. Several firefighters followed, holding onto the hose.

They stood inside the home’s upstairs rooms and watched how smoke separates into layers and way fire behaves when its devouring fuel.

Because most apprentices have the training towers memorized by now, an abandoned house provides a great learning opportunity — it’s a real, wood structure with some unpredictability.

That’s important when firefighters are learning to fight fires.

“Sometimes, even the best laid plans don’t work,” said Federal Way fire training Lt. Bob Kocourek. “It’s a demon.”

Boots go along on fire and medic calls just like their senior counterparts, but what junior firefighters do at a structure fire rests in the discretion of the incident commander.

There are very few serious house fires in Federal Way (there are more car fires), which firefighters credit to Federal Way Fire’s prevention program.

Every couple days, firefighters wheel the engines out of the bays and drive to businesses for fire inspections.

“We get out there and push those pretty hard,” Burdyshaw said.

In fact, Federal Way Fire’s prevention program is so effective, firefighters spend most of their time responding as medics. They’re cross-trained to provide emergency services for everything from heart palpitations and fainting spells to serious car crashes.

The majority of calls — 85 to 90 percent, Burdyshaw said — are calls for medical assistance these days.

Every shift, they train.

Last Thursday morning, firefighters studied how to treat hard tissue damage, or broken bones.

Providing emergency medical assistance requires rapid judgment calls based on immediately available information.

It’s different from being a doctor.

Doctors can have tests run, take X-rays and draw blood to determine what’s wrong with a patient before suggesting treatment. Medics have to act quickly to assess if the patient is in imminent danger of dying, what immediate treatment should be used to stabilize the person and to which hospital he or she should be transported.

“You have to make a diagnosis by the seat of your pants,” Burdyshaw said.

At a building inspection at Key Bank on 10th Avenue South, Burdyshaw hands some stickers to a little girl who was awed by the engine.

Her mom told Burdyshaw the toddler had a 106-degree-and-climbing fever and three seizures during a recent bout with pneumonia, but she’s better now.

That’s the charm of being a firefighter — people open up and share their stories. People feel safe with firefighters and little kids want to stand next to the engine.

It’s one of Burdyshaw’s favorite parts of his new job.

“There’s a satisfaction to what you do,” he said. “Other jobs are satisfying, but they don’t make a difference.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com.

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