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Fire academy heads north to train firefighters

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Hagadone News Network | December 21, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — The community is safer because of them.

While the challenges of firefighting may test their mettle, Bill Deruyter, deputy chief of the Coeur d'Alene Fire Department, told eight new fire academy graduates that they had what it takes to meet them head-on.

"Your journey is just beginning, and as you move forward, may your courage be unwavering, your spirits on dealing and your impact immeasurable," he told them, looking at each one in turn. "The world is a safer place with you in it, and we are grateful for your selfless service."

While the fire academy has been a staple at North Idaho College's Workforce Training Center for 13 years, the Dec. 12 fire academy graduation marked the first time the course was held in Bonner County.

"Today marks a milestone, a culmination of dedication, resilience and unwavering commitment to protect and serve," Deruyter said. "As I stand here, you're not merely individuals; you're the embodiment of bravery, the guardians of safety and the heroes our communities rely on."

Deruyter told the eight students that they've undergone rigorous training, mastering the necessary skills to confront the unpredictable challenges of the profession.

"Your sacrifices, both physical and emotional, have sculpted you into a force capable of confronting the flames that have threatened to engulf the lives of others," Deruyter told the graduates. "Remember, the emblem on your chest is not just a symbol. It is a promise — a promise to rush towards danger when others retreat, to be the calming presence amidst chaos, and to put the well-being of others above your own."

With each fire they fight and people they help, Deruyter told the graduates that they are creating legacies as "beacons of hope." He encouraged them to lean on, and learn from, each other.

"Undoubtedly, challenges will test your mettle, but let the flames of adversity refine you, not define you," Deruyter said. "Each trial you overcome is a testament to your tenacity, and every life you touch is a testament to your compassion."

Held at North Idaho College's Workforce Training Center, the twice-a-year class is in high demand, often attracting more than double the number of spots available.

Marty Matney, manager of the health careers and emergency services program at the center, praised the instructors who took part in the program. He said they are unsurpassed in their knowledge and training — and their willingness to teach the next generation of firefighters. Matney also thanked local firefighters, officials and fire chiefs, who offered everything from places to train to gear to a helping hand.

"All these folks and our instructors stepped forward, and they really put it together," he added.

"This is a flagship program for us," Matney said. "We take this very seriously, and the students that go through this program … the experiences they go through really, really prepare them for a career — not just a job but something that they will be able to take with them their whole life.

Instructors are upfront on the first day of class — this isn't your typical college program. The class is intensive; held three days a week, with sessions lasting four or more hours with a fair amount of homework. The class teaches everything from critical firefighting skills — everything from pulling hose and driving an engine, and more — to chain of command. The basics of what they need to know about being a firefighter are taught.

"We just ease them into all of that, and pretty soon, they're in our smoke-filled tower with a lot of fire doing a search," Deruyter said.

The eight students from fire departments in Bonner and Boundary counties are already volunteers at the Northside, Schweitzer and South Boundary County fire departments. 

When approached with the idea to hold a session of the fire academy in Bonner County, Matney and Deruyter admitted they were hesitant. Logistically, the class takes up a lot of room and demands a lot of resources.

Vern Roof, a fire commissioner at Northside Fire, saw it differently. Why couldn't it be held in Sandpoint, making it easier for volunteers from Bonner and Boundary counties to attend?

When all sides finally got together and talked, they were able to figure out a way to make it work. Selkirk, Schweitzer and Northside fire departments offered classroom spaces, training towers and staff to help make the academy happen.

The hope is that the success of the academy will spur additional classes being held in Bonner County, Matney and Deruyter said. Fire departments benefit because volunteers gain invaluable training; students benefit by gaining the skills they need to enter the fire service.

"As far as a career goes, you're drawn to it; it's in your heart," Deruyter said. "If you take this program, it'll just solidify that, and you'll have the thirst to just keep driving until you get hired … whether you want to be the best volunteer out there or if it's the start of a career."

If graduates want to pursue a degree in fire sciences, something they can do at North Idaho College, the class counts toward a two-year fire sciences degree.

The goal is to give future firefighters the skills and tools they need, the pair said.

"Our focus is to provide a quality education to as many people as we possibly can," Matney said. "… Our tagline is, 'All we want to do is change a life.' It's nothing big. It's just a life. Being able to come up into two areas that really need us, where we can really make an impact. Because not only can we change the students' lives and the people around them, but now let them go out and help others. [This] was absolutely huge to us."

    Firefighter academy students take part in a training exercise.
 
 
    NIC fire academy graduates listen to a speech during their Dec. 12 graduation. Pictured are James Bopp, Ashlyn Darling, Macee Dephillippis, Josiah Gallatin, Arlen Newton, Alexis Vandercoevering, Ben Wehri, and Tiger Williams.
 
 
    A firefighter academy graduate receives her diploma at the Dec. 12 graduation ceremony at the Bonner County Administration Building.