The City of Fort Walton Beach’s fire department and Okaloosa Technical College recently hosted the Northwest Florida Volunteer Firefighter Weekend. Now in its 18th year, the annual event has expanded to five days of training (Wednesday through Sunday). Volunteer firefighters can learn everything from grant writing and animal first aid to vehicle extrication and fighting actual fires.
This year’s event drew about 160 volunteer firefighters from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and an additional 25 to 30 instructors.
“The training is free to in-state firefighters,” said Charlie Frank, president of the Northwest Florida Firefighter Weekend Council. Frank said the event is funded through vendors, donors, and a silent auction held over the weekend.
Okaloosa Technical College provided the space for registration, classes, and vendors, and the fire department offered its training tower and facilities, which are located adjacent to Okaloosa Technical College on Lewis Turner Boulevard.
Fort Walton Beach Councilwoman Gloria DeBerry has been a volunteer with the event for all 18 years. This past weekend, she was busy at the registration table, signing in volunteer firefighters.
“I was there when they first started it and I’ll keep coming back,” said DeBerry. “The classes are a great resource for both volunteer and career firefighters.” DeBerry said she hopes training events like this will help bridge the gap between paid and volunteer departments.
Of all the drills firefighters conducted over the weekend, the most realistic by far were the live fire exercises.
The Alabama Fire College provided one of its mobile training vehicles for the weekend. The 53-foot, stainless steel-lined trailer is equipped with two large propane tanks and lines that simulate a variety of live fire scenarios that firefighters might encounter in a real emergency. The instructor stands in an insulated booth where he can both control the fire and watch the firefighting students.
“It’s not a real structure fire,” said Jesse Knox with the Alabama Fire College. “But it’s as close as we can get and still be safe.”