Lots of folks aspire to be firefighters. But once they sit down at a station to hear what the job entails, many reconsider. Sometimes it takes a few days in the fire academy for those recruits to change their minds. With an average attrition rate of 50 percent, the Sun Valley Fire Department usually graduates one or two on-call firefighters following an intensive five-month training period with Blaine County’s fire academy. That’s why, on June 5, the most recent class caused a stir at an induction ceremony at a Sun Valley City Council meeting with seven new firefighters—at an attrition rate of zero.
“Having seven people is the largest number for Sun Valley, larger than anybody can remember,” said Charlie Butterfield, assistant fire chief for the Sun Valley station.
Nate Galpin, Casey Finegan, Bree Vanden Heuvel, Brian Richter, Lance Levy, Matt Hansen and Chris Coe started academy together on Jan. 28 along with recruits for all of the county’s fire departments.
Sun Valley’s class was the biggest. The seven trainees were also part of a select group who passed an international firefighter certification. If they wanted to, they could perform these duties anywhere in the world.
“Through the years that I’ve been here, I think this group has been the most aggressive that I’ve seen,” said Sun Valley Fire Chief Ray Franco, at the June 5 ceremony.
Though they’re called volunteers, Butterfield said a more accurate label is “paid on-call firefighter.” Following the completion of academy, these firefighters carry pagers that alert them any time of the day or night when duty calls. Butterfield said the station gets an average of 250 calls annually.
Including the seven graduates, the squad now has 25 volunteer firefighters, which exceeds the number recommended by a 2007 report on Ketchum and Sun Valley done by McGrath Consulting Group. There are four full-time firefighters at the Sun Valley station who handle the smaller calls on their own, but larger fires call for reinforcement.
“If it’s a working structure fire or a wildlife fire, everybody knows we need more people for that, as opposed to a fire alarm,” Butterfield said.
While the position is part-time, the five-month training period is anything but. Chris Coe, an employee with Idaho Bioscience, said he underestimated the difficulty of fire academy.
“After we started the process and started training, I saw how much effort the other academy people, and importantly the trainers, were putting into the process,” he said. “That’s when I realized it was time to get on board and put the time in and do this thing right. I feel like the other people in the academy bought into that mindset as well and it was a team effort.”
The training entailed at least one weeknight and a full weekend day, sometimes two, according to Casey Finegan, who works in tech support. Hazmat training took a full three days, he said. On the off days when they weren’t in classes, the trainees had two quizzes a week.
“[There was] quite a bit of time spent studying,” Coe said.
Physical ability, or as Nathan Galpin puts it, “being super ripped,” is equally important for aspiring firefighters. Butterfield said physical ability is rarely a problem with Sun Valley recruits, since it’s such an active community. Claustrophobia is the hardest barrier for most trainees, he said, when they start using the breathing apparatus that covers most of the face.
Galpin, the owner of a metal fabrication business, said the Beaver Creek fire last summer, which took out more than 100,000 acres in the Sawtooth National Forest and posed a real threat to local residents, was a contributing factor to the swell in firefighter applicants—himself in particular. Butterfield said last summer’s wildfire and the 2007 Castle Rock Fire prove that fast action is crucial to their job.
“[We try to] get an initial quick response to fires and stop them when they’re small, before they get to hundreds of thousands of acres,” he said.
Finegan and Galpin in particular have deep roots in the community and firefighter family members who gave them an inside look at firefighting. All recruits, with pagers on their belts and the will to get up and go at a moment’s notice, are joining up right at the start of Sun Valley’s fire season. In a region where tourism and recreation are major draws, these new firefighters said they are prepared to go the distance to keep it that way.