By Rick Markley
A top-notch first responder training facility needs more than land, buildings, and instructors—it needs gear. Here’s how one new site stocked up and its plan for growth.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been part of a firefighter training class where a large group of students stood around waiting their turn while two or three firefighter students did a hands-on evolution. If your hand’s not up and you’ve been at this profession for a while, consider yourself lucky.
Instructors know that this standing-around scenario is one of the quickest ways to lose students’ interest, and once lost, it is difficult to regain. Getting around that problem is just one of the challenges facing any new first responder training facility.
The New Training Facility
The Multi Agency Academic Cooperative is one such training facility wrestling with that problem. The MAAC, as it’s called, is a newly opened center about 50 miles east of Chicago, Illinois, that is operated by a nonprofit foundation and was built and supplied through a private-public partnership. You can read the full story of how the MAAC came to be and what it offers first responders at .
Leaders at the MAAC understand full well that solving the standing-around dilemma is a matter of having a sound organizational structure, the proper instructor-to-student ratios, and enough equipment to keep firefighters working. “When we have a [Firefighter I and II] class of 42 starting, I don’t want four of them working on a ladder and 38 of them sitting around,” says Michael Parks, division chief for the Crown Point (IN) Fire Department. “We want to get it to where we have [enough] ladders where they can break up into squads of four and operate as a company. We’re going to have to have a lot of duplication of equipment so we can get more hands on.”
Parks is Indiana’s District 1 firefighter training coordinator. Indiana is divided into 10 fire training districts. The five-county District 1 is the second largest by population in the state with about 2,000 firefighters from more than 70 departments. Parks has also been on the ground floor of the MAAC’s development and sits on its leadership committee. That involvement goes hand-in-hand with District 1’s contract to use the MAAC as its home base. “We are the second most populated district in the state, but District 1 does far more training than other districts,” Parks says. “We put a lot of training together up here.
Designed for Multiple Evolutions at Once
From an engineering and design standpoint, the MAAC is laid out in such a way as to allow for Parks’ vision of multiple squads of firefighting students training at once. That comes, thanks in large part, to MAAC Academy Director Ward Barnett. He led the design and construction efforts at the MAAC and added a twist. Each training area is modular, and each module includes storage space for the equipment needed for those particular evolutions and an area to brief students post evolution.
For example, saws, ladders, and other tools necessary for roof ventilation training are stored in containers near the ventilation props. Likewise, forcible entry tools are near the eight forcible entry props, and technical rescue gear is kept near the four-story structure used for those evolutions. The site has areas specifically dedicated to hazmat, gas line and gas container leaks and fires, vehicle fires, fire extinguisher, search and rescue, flashover, live fire, down firefighter and self-rescue, drafting and pumping, and auto extrication.
“The thing I’ve been most surprised at with what [Barnett’s] done here is the incredible versatility of the props,” says Stewart McMillan, CEO of Task Force Tips (TFT), which his father founded and that he’s been running since he was 28. “These props can be used in so many different ways. We don’t have one fire department training here; we think we can easily have four or five fire departments at the same time doing different evolutions without interfering with each other.”
The MAAC is McMillan’s baby. He’s long dreamed of such a training facility, and when a plot of land 1,000 feet from the TFT site became available, he sunk $2.5 million into buying the property, establishing the MAAC Foundation, hiring people like Barnett, cutting deals with local firms, and lobbying state and local lawmakers—in short, driving the project from vision to reality.
Equipping the Facility
While the MAAC may not be as fully equipped as its leaders would like, in the year from site groundbreaking to ribbon cutting, it amassed a fair amount of training equipment. And, it got there via a circuitous route. Because the MAAC isn’t operated by a municipal entity, such as a fire department or a fire district, it didn’t have an equipment budget and a surplus of existing equipment to fall back on. And given the MAAC foundation’s limited startup resources, there wasn’t room for any “kid in a candy store” equipment spending spree.
McMillan, Barnett, and Parks had to work with their main public sector partner, the state of Indiana, to equip the training center. And, as it turns out, there was a cache of equipment looking for a central home.
As Parks explains, District 1 has a lot of equipment it has been using over the years to train firefighters. Some of that equipment was scattered across the district on loan to various departments that hosted training; most was in Parks’ backyard. “There was so much district stuff at [my department] that I literally couldn’t walk in my office. All the books were there, all the curriculum was there,” Parks says. “We had storage containers with all the props. We had all these trailers, and we didn’t have anywhere to put anything. It got logistically very difficult to keep track of everything, because the stuff that wasn’t at Crown Point was out being used somewhere or borrowed. It became very cumbersome to figure out where that stuff was.
“When the MAAC came along, we were on board 100 percent because it was going to give us a home to operate out of. We’re not going to be the only people to train here, but it is going to be our primary training center. Everything that the district owns came to the MAAC. The MAAC is now like the central repository; it’s like the library. Now, if anybody needs anything, it goes in and out of the MAAC, not from department to department, where you couldn’t track it.”
Much of the equipment the district owns and is now housed at the MAAC was donated from one source or another. Walk through the apparatus bay, and you’ll see different colored rigs that were donated from area departments. The same is true of its saws, ladders, and other tools. This used but serviceable equipment is in line with what the firefighters will be using in their home departments.
But, not all of the equipment came via a hand-me-down. Led by McMillan, MAAC leaders lobbied state lawmakers for more equipment funding. Each of Indiana’s districts receives a portion of state-collected fireworks sales tax for firefighter training. Following months of meetings, District 1 came away with an additional $300,000 grant to buy training equipment for use at the MAAC. “We’re getting ready to put in a tool order, and we’re going to have more axes than most fire departments have,” Barnett says.
That grant, combined with the existing pool of District 1 equipment, was key to making the MAAC operational months before it officially opened in September 2017. But, as Barnett says, “Training centers are never finished.” For the MAAC, future equipment needs will include more items, like the ladders Parks talked about, to keep more students engaged. It will include more replacement items that are consumed during training, like wood, oriented strand board, gasoline, and propane. It will also include replacing equipment that naturally wears out with use, such as saws and blades.
The MAAC Foundation will continue fundraising and lobbying state officials to provide operational costs to cover both equipment and instructor fees. And, some of the expense of replacing consumables may be offset by a small fee charged to fire departments for each student they send to the MAAC—but that’s not yet been decided. They also will be looking to form partnerships with firefighting equipment manufacturers to get items on loan, at deep discounts, or for free.
“We had some saws and fans donated by Super Vac,” Barnett says. “Their process is that it is a loan. Their rep will come by once or twice a year to visit with us. He’ll either take that back and get us the next version, or he may say this is still the best model to have.”
Because the MAAC is operated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, it can receive such donations and deep discounts. Barnett says the MAAC Foundation has existing partnerships with MSA, TFT, and AMKUS for free or discounted equipment. As AMKUS was acquired by TFT in 2016 and both are located within walking distance to the MAAC, those partnerships are obvious. In fact, both companies, McMillan says, pay the MAAC Foundation a monthly rental fee. This close relationship does raise questions about if the MAAC is being used to sell those products to fire departments. It’s something Parks, McMillan, and Barnett dismiss. “Those are some of the discussions that we had,” Parks says. “Up front, some of the potential problems we thought we might have is that look, this is not going to always be a TFT or AMKUS sales pitch. We want students and instructors to have a variety of equipment. When we do a vehicle machinery ops class, we intend to invite all of the manufacturers here. We’ll have a set of all of the tools there. We did it in the last class, and some students were preferring one tool to another; that’s the way it is.”
McMillan agrees. “They did bring it up early and I did dismiss it out of hand,” he says. “I was perfectly fine from the very beginning that there would be no requirements for TFT or AMKUS to be the only equipment of that type on the site.”
The rental fee, McMillan says, gives TFT and AMKUS access to the MAAC for product testing, dealer training, and customer demonstrations. “The place I see the biggest use is getting our engineers out of their offices and down here observing training, seeing where people have problems,” he says. “That control on that nozzle—how can it be made so it works better with gloves? Where can we find places to make it easier and safer in the fire service?”
One area MAAC organizers are looking to bolster equipment is self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and personal protective equipment (PPE) for its trainers. As Parks explains, fire departments are not too keen on their firefighters who serve as MAAC instructors routinely exposing their department-issued gear to the smoke and heat of live burns when they teach at the MAAC. The ideal solution, he says, is to equip trainers with MAAC-only PPE and SCBA.
Yet, of all the equipment needs for a training facility like the MAAC, there’s one that may surprise you. “It is really hard for us to keep up with textbooks. We are trying to reuse them, but I’d like the student to be able to keep them,” Parks says. “Ideally, I want them in that book, not just once, but on a regular basis. But the way our model is now, it is like a library. I have to get them back at the end of class. The first thing I warn them is if you don’t give me my book back, I’m going to hunt you down. A good portion of our funding goes to books. Since it is so expensive, we can’t afford to give them away. If somebody doesn’t pass the test, I don’t want their book; I want them to study and get their retest.”
Technology may solve some of that problem if firefighting textbooks move to a digital and less expensive platform and if students can and will use that platform. This, like the ability to give firefighters more hands-on time during evolutions, is one of many equipment-related growing pains the MAAC will have to address in the coming years.
RICK MARKLEY is the former editor in chief of two firefighting publications, a volunteer firefighter, and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor in chief and written numerous articles on firefighting.