INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Indiana firefighters could get more consistent training under a proposal moving through the General Assembly that public safety officials and lawmakers say is long overdue.
The House and Senate have both approved similar versions of a bill that would establish a unified fire academy and training program in Indiana. That would give firefighters what police officers have had since 1969, when the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy was established. Many assumed a similar fire academy would follow.
“It’s been 46 years and it hasn’t happened,” said Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, who is co-sponsoring the bill. “We’ve totally neglected it and it’s sad, as far as I’m concerned.”
Indiana’s current fire training program was established in 2005 and follows a more regional approach in which training decisions are made on a local level and then approved by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
Larger cities such as Fort Wayne generally have enough firefighters to justify their own training programs. But other departments have to pool together, and getting a group through the mandatory and basic training can strain resources.
Schererville Fire Chief Joseph Kruzan said he hires someone new every four or five years, which isn’t often compared with departments that bring in new employees every year.
“I don’t even have the budget to train someone new every four or five years. They have to come into my department completely trained,” he said while testifying on the bill before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “This certainly limits the pool of resources that I can hire.”
Mike Whited, vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana, said that on his first day on the job, he was fitted for gear and told he would be trained on the job underneath a fellow firefighter.
“I could have been sent out to a fire where I would have had to rescue somebody,” he said. “And the model I just described is still happening today.”
Most states already have a centralized fire academy, similar to a police academy, where recruits spend weeks at a time learning the ropes. Others, including Florida, West Virginia and Utah, depend heavily on their state and community college systems to provide consistent training.
Bill author Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, a former Indiana firefighter, said the bill wouldn’t establish a bricks-and-mortar academy immediately.
State Fire Marshal James Greeson would first create a curriculum that encompasses all the services firefighters provide, which can include fire prevention, protection and suppression, emergency medical services and disaster relief. Greeson would then partner with local universities and vocational schools to establish facilities where the training can take place.
Current training in Indiana varies widely without a set standard, which can make collaboration difficult between fire departments. It can also be dangerous, according to Fishers Fire Chief Steve Orusa, who said Indiana firefighters are challenged by fires that are even more dangerous than before.
“They burn hotter. They burn faster, and the lightweight construction can collapse around people in just about the same time it takes firefighters to get there within minutes,” he said.
Without proper training, firefighters can find themselves in dangerous situations. According to the Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, 17 Indiana firefighters have died in the line of duty since 1997.
“There’s nothing that can prepare your heart from breaking when that happens,” said Orusa, who believes that standardized training for firefighters could help reduce injuries and deaths.
Frye said he’s unsure why it’s taken Indiana this long to establish something that is so clearly needed. Similar legislation over the past four decades has repeatedly failed, but he’s optimistic of its chances this time, especially since creating a unified fire academy has been on Gov. Mike Pence’s agenda since before he took office in 2013.
The House must accept Senate changes to the bill before it can go to Pence for approval.