Firefighters need to be prepared for any situation, be it operating in total darkness and extreme heat of a house fire or rescuing someone who’s fallen into an icy lake. There’s the physical aspect of it, of course: operating with 70+ pounds of equipment on your back; making the most of an almost-empty air tank; breaching a bolted door. But there’s also the mental aspect: operating pumps to keep water flowing through hoses (a mathematically complicated task); the mechanics involved in using different equipment and tools; understanding chemistry and architecture to know how a fire will behave, and how a building will react as a result.
To master all of these intricacies, newly minted firefighters in Westchester undergo a 16-week Career Academy at the Department of Emergency Services’ Fire Training Center. The training center, situated on the Grasslands Campus of Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, is the second-busiest training facility in New York, preparing the county’s 58 departments (five of which are career-only, 14 combination, and 39 all-volunteer), along with fire brigades from organizations like Metro-North and IBM, EMS, and other emergency response teams over a combined 125,000 hours. The campus has everything the trainees need: A six-story high-rise building; a single-family house; a smokehouse (pumped full of “Hollywood” smoke); a building with ever-changing mazes where trainees learn to navigate in complete darkness; a hydraulic roof simulator; a ConEd manhole; and a few cars and propane tanks.
We wanted to get a firsthand look at the training center, and luckily 19 trainees from six different departments allowed us to tag along for a day.