Fire Sciences Program Helps Prepare Volunteer Firefighters for Looming Fire Season

April 16, 2014 -- As this year’s forest and wildland fire season heats up, CNM Fire Sciences Instructor Brian Henington is leading an effort to provide volunteer firefighters around the state with the knowledge they need to battle blazes while staying safe.
July 16, 2015


He’s been traveling to different parts of New Mexico, giving volunteer firefighters refresher courses and courses specific to wildland firefighting.

“This is already promising to be a bad fire season,” Henington said. “Given the current dry, windy and warm conditions, New Mexico fire managers are facing a grim and potentially extreme situation. These courses are designed to keep the volunteer firefighters ready to combat the fires.”

Henington and several other instructors in the Fire Sciences program are providing the classes to volunteer fire departments free of charge thanks to a $56,000, three-year contract CNM has with the New Mexico State Forestry Department. CNM is receiving the money from the state to provide the classes.

Since January, Henington has given eight-hour refresher classes and 32-hour intermediate wildland firefighting classes to a total of seven different volunteer fire departments, mostly in the Silver City and Cloudcroft areas. The 32-hour courses are offered over two weekends.

In order for a volunteer fire department to be operational, all firefighters are required to take a 32-hour introductory class, followed every year by an eight-hour refresher class.

There are an estimated 783,300 volunteer firefighters in the U.S., comprising 69 percent of the nation’s fire service, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. It also reports that of the total 30,100 fire departments in the United States, 20,050 are made up of all volunteer firefighters, 5,445 are mostly volunteer, 1,995 are mostly career firefighters and 2,610 are all career firefighters.

Henington noted that “in most cases the volunteer firefighters are the first line of defense for wildland fires. The majority of the fires are handled at that level.”

In his teachings, Henington emphasizes avoidance – staying out of the line of fire, often referring to last year’s Yarnell, Ariz. fire where 19 “hotshot” crew members were killed when a fast-moving wildland grass fire trapped them. “Hotshots” are highly trained, elite wildland firefighters. Henington also instructs the volunteers to avoid being under a slurry drop, a fire retardant that is released from DC-10 aircrafts to slow down the blaze. Between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of slurry are dropped at a time, enough to kill a person if they’re unfortunate enough to be directly under the drop.

firesheltesmallr.jpgHe gives lessons on how to deploy fire shelters – tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat as a last-resort protection. The firefighters in the Yarnell Fire used fire shelters as their last line of defense, but the intensity of that fire overtook the shelters. All his discussions with the firefighters emphasize safety. He also talks about current safety hazards specific to New Mexico such as rattlesnakes, oil and gas activity, and working along the Mexico border.

To meet the requirements of the State Forestry Department contract, Mike Kavanaugh, Chair of the CNM Fire Sciences program, has hired several new instructors. Most are also teaching classes at CNM. “These new people are experienced and highly qualified,” he said.

Among the new instructors are: Jerome Macdonald, who is a Type I Incident Commander and was an incident commander during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack,  and he was a New York Fire Department instructor for the management tool called Incident Command System; Bequi Livingston, pioneer female wildland firefighter who developed a Fireline Fitness workout program that is used by U.S. Forest Service firefighters throughout the country and she was the first female in the country to run a hotshot crew; Matthew Pena, engine captain with the U.S. Forest Service in Cuba, N.M., and full-time school teacher at Albuquerque Public Schools; Karen Takai, Type I public information officer for the  Southwest Interagency Management Team; Jess Lewis, deputy chief of the Sandoval County Fire Department; and Sunbear Vierra, engine captain for the U.S. Forest Service and Sandia Ranger District, and chainsaw instructor.

Henington said CNM’s Fire Sciences program is providing great service to the volunteer fire departments for two reasons – CNM is in the business of educating adults and it has assembled a great team of instructors.

“I really like teaching the volunteer firefighters,” Henington said. “They are quality people. We are out there promoting CNM, and meeting the new people is enjoyable.”