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Fire Board considers program to teach firefighting skills to teens in St. Louis

By Ralph Echtinaw

Students in Gratiot-Isabella Technical Education Center’s public safety program will get firefighter training at the St. Louis fire station if the Fire Board likes the plan that GI-TEC instructor Bob March comes up with.

March, who is a St. Louis firefighter and former Alma police officer, pitched the idea to Fire Board members Tuesday. They liked it but asked March to fine tune the plan and return at a later date for final approval.

Coty said by email that March will work out “safety procedures and policies, curriculum, finer details such as equipment needed, insurance coverages. Simply insuring that we can provide a safe, productive program and atmosphere, that does not hamper the services that Saint Louis Fire provides.”

If the program is approved, students would spend two hours a day during one trimester of the 2022-23 school year training at the St. Louis fire station. 

There would be one class in the morning for first-year students. March estimated that 30 kids would be in that class. Second-year students would meet in the afternoon. March figures 15-20 students would be in that class.

Students who do the whole two years could qualify for Firefighter 1 certification, which would make them employable at fire departments all over the state right out of high school.

Fire Chief Bill Coty

Fire Board members expressed concern over misbehaving kids who could potentially damage or steal fire department equipment. March said that’s unlikely. “Students with behavior issues are usually not the ones signing up for the criminal justice public safety program,” he said. “We can pick and choose. So if I feel like a student isn’t ready or shouldn’t be in the program I can say ‘This student needs to go,’ and admin will remove them from the program. We’re not dealing with the difficult students that other teachers HAVE to deal with.”

Bethany Township Supervisor Greg Mikek asked if the training could be done elsewhere. March replied that he prefers the St. Louis fire station because “I know the equipment, and I know the facility. I’m also familiar with Alma being on the police department and I believe the facility here is better than the one in Alma.”

Fire Chief Bill Coty agreed. “You can’t do this anywhere else,” he said. And “in the long term it could definitely help with recruiting.”

Pine River Township Supervisor Kevin Beeson said “GI-TEC is a great program, and we can help make it a better program.”

Coty himself is a GI-TEC graduate, class of 1994. “When I graduated high school I was a certified mechanic with nine certifications,” he said via email. “The GI-TEC program provided myself and many of our firefighters lifelong skills and a great start in life without a massive amount of college debt. They’re turning out great welders, mechanics… along with so many other technical skills. Hopefully soon they will be turning out firefighters. Thats would be an amazing way to support our community and profession.”

GI-TEC encompasses school districts in Alma, Ashley, Beal City, Breckenridge, Fulton, Ithaca, Mt. Pleasant, Sacred Heart, St. Louis and Shepherd.

New rescue truck pays off

Coty told the Fire Board that there have been 29 fire investigations so far this year; up from eight investigations during the same period last year. 

He attributed the change to newly acquired Rescue 642, a Ford F-150 that is fully stocked for medical responses and contains extraction equipment.

“Having the rescue duty officer truck has allowed us an ability to make a much quicker response with a vehicle that is marked and lit appropriately for roadway incidents,” Coty said via email. “With the help of (Gratiot County) Central Dispatch we have been able to transition lower risk calls such as trees down in roadway, wire down calls amongst many other things into a one- or two-man investigation, as opposed to a complete fire dispatch, saving significant costs in labor, fuel and wear-n-tear. It has also provided for a much faster response. It enables us to put a department-owned, marked and well-equipped vehicle on scene rapidly.”

Boarding up houses

Coty told the board that he made a deal with Hammer Restoration of Mt. Pleasant to board up houses after the fire department puts out a blaze. This prevents the houses from being an attractive nuisance to curious children who might try to get inside. Insurance companies pay Handle Restoration to board up houses, so there is no charge to the fire department. “On average they collect on 80 percent of them and the other 20 percent they’re willing to eat to get the 80,” Coty said.

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