BREMERTON — It’s probably the best-kept secret in Kitsap County from area residents. But the Bremerton International Emergency Services Training Center’s status among first responders — countywide, regionally and nationally — is well-known and vital to this Navy-centered community.
About 5,000 Department of Defense-affiliated firefighters pass through intensive fire suppression training at the Kitsap County-owned site behind the 911 law enforcement and fire emergency communications center, next door to Pendergast Regional Park in Bremerton.
Mike Tinder, a 36-year firefighting veteran and trainer for the Air Force and, later, the Navy, coordinates training activities for mainly U.S. Navy and Coast Guard crew members. He supervises a team of 20 trainers, whose full-time jobs are with Kitsap County fire districts and city fire departments.
The demand for specialized training has been robust, Tinder said, after leading an outdoor exercise involving coordinated efforts to douse a simulated helicopter fire. Armed with water hoses, teams of firefighters worked together to connect, engage and contain billowing flames emanating from underneath a mock helicopter cab. In this realistic simulation, the flames are fed from a propane tank that burns 20 gallons or so of the liquid fuel during the fire fight.
While almost all Navy crew members have received some training in fighting fires onboard a waterborne vessel, Tinder said their learning experience during basic training and “A school” for general shipboard firefighting is usually limited.
“When they come here, it’s kind of like you have to start over with them because they really don’t have a lot of experience,” Tinder said. “We start them out with the basic firefighting techniques, teaching them about classifying fires and typical locations, how to approach a fire and to quickly get to it.”
On this training day, the crew from the Navy’s USS Frank Cable, a submarine tender based out of Apra Harbor, Guam — now in drydock in Portland — went through their training paces, first in the classroom, then out in simulated settings nearly identical to the dark, narrow galleys and berths inside a ship.
While large ships, such as the USS Nimitz and Stennis, have fire teams aboard dedicated to the singular task of preventing and, if need be, fighting onboard blazes. Smaller vessels such as the Frank Cable have firefighting teams that are assisted by crew members whose firefighting responsibilities are secondary to their main missions.
“We try to provide the best quality training and the most realistic training that they’ll ever experience on the job,” Tinder said. “We want to instill confidence in these guys so that when they face a real-life firefighting exercise on their vessel, they’ll be able to comfortably be able to anticipate and handle it.”
The training, he added, begins with the basics: how to put on safety equipment, how to take it off, how to inspect the equipment, and how to use it.
“We do that before we do anything tactical,” Tinder explained.
On a vessel that’s teeming with complex equipment, flammable fuel, miles of electrical wiring — enough to keep a small community of sailors productive in their work — the possibility of a fire breaking out is always present. It could start just about anywhere aboard a vessel.
“Guys usually have to fight a Class A fire [combustible material such as paper, wood, fabric and refuse] in their berth where they’ve been smoking when they’re not supposed to, or a candle will catch bedding on fire,” he said.
“We have fires in the engine room where a spark has ignited a fire, or contractors working on the boat with torch welding who inadvertently catch rags on fire. There are galley fires, deep fat fires, electrical hazards. These guys come across just about everything you can imagine.”
While the firefighting training center hosts mostly military firefighters, it also provides specialized training for crew from the Washington State Ferries and other maritime agencies, such as the Army National Guard, Army, Merchant Marines and the State of Washington. Tinder said the facility is operated under a Navy contract by WRG Fire Training Simulation Systems, Inc. of Newberg, Oregon.
This bustling training facility tucked in behind Bremerton’s Auto Center Way, while practically invisible to the South Kitsap community, has become a popular ticket with the first-responder community. Tinder said county fire departments, including South Kitsap and Central Kitsap, use the center to conduct their own training.
“They’ll come up here to schedule the use of the tower,” he said. “We don’t really teach those guys. If they want something specialized, we’ll set that up for them.”
Two recent, separate collisions involving U.S. Navy vessels — while tragic — offer the first-responder community new lessons-learned about how to respond more effectively in emergency situations.
“In my 36 years in this business, there have been a lot of changes,” Tinder said.
“Fighting fires on a vessel years ago involved doing it without breathing apparatus. As a result, people would ingest cancer carcinogens. It’s evolved where you have the proper protective equipment — even in the past 15 years. The approaches have changed as well. There’s more emphasis on safety as opposed to past years. It’s not a matter of ‘just going to fight a fire.’ First, we want to protect the first responder, then attack the fire.”
Two Port of Bremerton officials — Commissioner Axel Strakeljahn and Arne Bakker, business development director — were at the center observing a training exercise last week. Strakeljahn said he was stunned — pleasantly, he added — at the work being accomplished in the Port’s backyard.
“I had no idea this was located in our area,” the commissioner said.
“At the end of the day, it shows that we have a great facility here at Kitsap. It not only helps service our military here but also nationally. It’s just a wonderful asset for our community and our military members.”