Regional training centers provide a safe haven for firefighters who want to hone their skills in real-world scenarios, live fires and classroom discussions. But regional centers aren’t dedicated solely to fire departments. Instead, such centers invite all public agencies to run drills, learn specific skills and co-mingle with firefighters in order to foster interagency cooperation, said Alan Benson, fire chief at the Woodlands (Texas) Fire Department.
The fire department manages the Woodlands Emergency Management Training Center, a multidisciplinary center built less than two years ago. Benson said the center was paid through a sales-based tax at a cost of more than $8 million dollars. It is a 13-acre site with 21,000 square feet of classroom facilities and four acres of open concrete, Benson said. The campus includes six multi-use classrooms capable of holding 24 to 170 students; a library skills lab with secure and unsecured storage; a three-bay apparatus room; an SCBA room with compressor and a six-bottle fill station; and a 6-story, live-burn training tower.
“It also has a confined-space prop and a driver/operator training range used for any typical maneuvers and braking exercises,” Benson said.
The training center currently houses the Woodlands Fire Department's Training Division and Lone Star College Montgomery’s Fire-Science Program. Benson said the center formed a partnership with the college to host an eight-month-long fire-certification offering under the Texas Commission of Fire Protection. Three, eight-month courses have been held with approximately 30 to 35 students in each class, he said. EMT courses are offered and, in the future, so will intermediate and paramedic training.
EMS is essential to fire-service training, Benson said, adding departments that don’t offer EMS or first-responder services are missing the boat.
“We put a lot of resources and provide incentives for our firefighters to become paramedics,” Benson said. “I think that is one of the backbone services to communities. I can’t believe there are fire departments who do not offer those services.”
The training center is used extensively by both the Woodlands Fire Department and the county’s other fire departments for intercompany drills. But it also hosts local police, county sheriffs, fire brigades and oil-industry personnel. Benson said having an interagency regional training center ensures cross-agency collaboration — which still needs improvement. He said in his previous position as fire chief in Oklahoma City, domestic terrorism then devastating tornados brought together multiple agencies that operated in a territorial fashion “where police didn’t play well with fire or EMS.” A training center with multiple disciplines brings together agencies so they can operate effectively during a large incident.
“The easiest thing you can do is foster those relationships before an emergency ever happens,” Benson said. “So I think it’s really important to bring all disciplines in, learn to play well together, get to know them personally, exercise with them and everyone will perform better during an emergency.”