Newly trained, ready to roll: City welcomes 29 firefighters

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In the cool morning sun, the firefighters leapt out of the building's windows, roped into a line and rappelled acrobatically down the building's facade. While sirens blared, another team calmly extracted a mannequin from a car using a special tool that can cut open a vehicle's exterior. Another group of firefighters busted open a door in a free-standing door frame, extinguishing the fire on the other side.

On Friday, the crowd whooped and cheered the 29 newly minted members of the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau as they demonstrated some of the skills they learned during their course at the Fire Academy. In the latter part of the ceremony, the men -- who then changed into neat uniforms -- took an oath led by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and received their recruit pins.

The class -- the second to graduate this year -- was lauded as one of the best trained in the bureau, the product of a more holistic curriculum that has evolved and expanded over the years and was again revamped this January. This is the second class to graduate under the new curriculum. Twenty-eight recruits joined the bureau's ranks in August, the first class the city has graduated in about four years.

"You are part of something very, very special," fire Chief Darryl Jones told the firefighters.

Aspiring firefighters now spend 32 weeks in training, at least a month longer than they used to. According to Capt. Richard Brutt, a firefighter instructor based in the bureau's Washington Boulevard Fire Academy, the most recent recruits got more training on firefighting techniques. They spent far more time participating in live fire simulations at the Allegheny County Fire Academy in North Park than did previous classes.

The bureau began expanding its curriculum in 2005, when Mike Huss, now the public safety director, was hired as the fire chief. He added training to get firefighters in the academy certified as emergency medical technicians.

"This job has evolved to so much more than fighting fires," he said.

The recent graduates also are versed in advanced rescue techniques, like rope rescues, in which firefighters attached with ropes raise or lower themselves to assist and rescue victims. Rope rescues are used to extricate people off Mount Washington, for example, or could be used to assist a window-washer who has a medical emergency in his rig. They learned how to extract a person from a mangled vehicle following a car crash and how to handle hazardous materials in an industrial accident.

Following a flash flood that killed four people on Washington Boulevard, just down the road from the Fire Academy, the city also implemented swift water rescue training for many public safety personnel. It was also added to the curriculum in January.

Chief Jones said the expansion of the bureau's training reflects a move for the bureau toward "an all-hazards approach." With the reduction of blight in the city, fire calls have dropped significantly. According to an audit by City Controller Michael Lamb, more than half of all calls the fire bureau responded to in 2010 were medical calls.

"Before it was all about putting water on the fire," he said. "We have to be trained for all hazards."

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