IN Firefighter Training Facility Offers Variety of Evolutions

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By Rick Markley

Bring together a group of fire service professionals and the term “public-private partnership” is not one you are likely to hear tossed around. The concept is often reserved for infrastructure projects like detention centers, highways and the occasional fire station.

Yet in a small town about 50 miles east of Chicago, public-private partnerships are being talked about a lot in connection with the fire service, and more specifically, firefighter training. That’s because the brand-spanking new Multi Agency Academic Cooperative — a regional emergency responder training center — is open for business. Known locally as the MAAC, the complex is the brainchild of Stewart McMillan and is a partnership between private industry, nonprofit foundations and state and local governments. The 4.5-acre facility sits on a 12-acre plot about 1,000 feet from the Task Force Tips headquarters, of which McMillan is CEO and his father was the founder.

In fact, McMillan dedicated the site to his father by laboring over how to name it so the acronym spelled “Mac,” his father’s nickname. McMillan not only followed his father into the family business, he followed him into volunteer firefighting. And if you spend any time with McMillan, you’ll understand that his relationships with his father and firefighting deeply informs his personal and professional life; for more on that, you can watch his Ted Talk below.

Like his father was, McMillan is a firefighter training evangelist. And he’s been dreaming of building a training facility since 1998 when Task Force Tips moved to its current location. But building it there would have been an eyesore, he says. And so he waited.

That wait came to an end when “we very serendipitously came upon this property, which was way off my radar. We had 12 acres here that was all stoned and driven on with 50-ton forklifts,” McMillan says. “The minute I saw it, (I knew) this would support fire trucks and this is the place for a training academy — it’s industrial, it’s secluded, it’s in the center of the district, it’s perfect.”  

Groundbreaking occurred at the site in September 2016, and in a year’s time a fully functional fire, police, and EMS training facility was built and put into operation. In fact, long before it’s September 2017 ribbon-cutting ceremony, the MAAC has hosted various training classes including a driver/operator, Firefighter I and II and police tactical training. Weekend and evening classes began in May so the facility could be used without upsetting the on-going construction work.

Exterior training props and tower

So what does MAAC have to offer students? Actually, quite a bit given its relatively small footprint.

The 7,200-square-foot main building houses offices and two classrooms. The lion’s share of that building, 6,000 square feet, is a large apparatus bay where indoor training takes place. That area has a two-story structure for bail-out and ladder training; the bail-out area has built-in fall protection. There are also downed firefighter rescue props, as well as space for storage and class instruction.

Outside along the Eastern perimeter are several propane-fed firefighting props. One is a fire extinguisher training area where Class A, B and C fires can be simulated. Other props include live-fire training for vehicle fires, large and small dumpster fires, and various propane-tank leak and fire scenarios. There’s a hazmat training area where leaks can be simulated from common pipe sizes, container configurations and vehicles.

Bailout training and ladder training area inside apparatus bay

There’s a concrete pad lined with passenger vehicles begging to be cut open and ground-level roof ventilation prop that allows the instructors to gradually increase the prop’s pitch to acclimate students to roof work. There’s a drafting pond and four hydrants at various points. The hydrants can flow at city pressure or be boosted to 250 psi off the MAAC’s fire pump. This, McMillan says, allows instructors sufficient water pressure to run evolutions without having to shout over the noise of an engine pump.

The site also houses a one-story and a two-story structure. The two-story building replicates a modern home floorplan and is used for search and rescue, ventilation, ladders, and hose advancement training. The single-story unit has both flat and pitched roof sections with parapet walls and areas for forced-entry training on the ground.

The MAAC has a flashover chamber where fire behavior can be seen three feet below the fire room. There is a separate two-story live-burn building that has three burn areas and multiple access points. But what catches your eye as soon as you set foot on the MAAC is the four-story training building. This unit’s first two floors are configured to replicate two apartment styles. In addition to hose advancement, search and rescue and ground ladder evolutions, instructors can also use it to teach confined space rescue, aerial positioning, standpipe use and rope rescue.

What may not be immediately obvious is that all of these training props are modular, meaning all of the equipment needed for each prop is housed in a storage container near that prop. There are also small meeting areas for post evolution evaluation and instruction. This means groups of students can be working in different areas at the same time.

“The container thing was beyond my vision,” McMillan says. “When we built the big building, I thought we’d be keeping the equipment there. Then I realized what he was doing with those containers, and it is a really inexpensive way.

“Instead of having this big heated, cooled storage building that everyone is traipsing in and out of and making a mess of, now you’ve got individual containers that will get messed up. It is much more easy to hold people accountable when they just trained and that container is messed up. The equipment is easier to account for when you have small groups of it rather than a big bundle of it. Of all the things out there, that’s brilliant; that’s a big difference from anything I’ve seen. On top of that, he took the containers and put two-rise bleachers with a canopy over it, so they can rehab and get their attention right there at the prop.”

The “he” McMillan is talking about is Ward Barnett, the man charged with ushering McMillan’s dream into reality. “This would be bare ground without Ward,” he says. “You can have all the money in the world, but you can’t do something without the right person.”

Barnett is the MAAC’s academic director and the architect who put all the pieces in place. He comes from a long fire service career that spans serving as a volunteer fire chief to a career firefighter to assistant chief overseeing oil refinery fire departments.

One of Barnett’s first jobs at MAAC was deciding what went into the facility. Area fire chiefs have been dreaming about a facility like this for about 20 years, so there was no shortage of items on the wish list, McMillan says. “They gushed ideas, and Ward’s been the gatekeeper of which ones could be implemented and which ones couldn’t.”

Before putting the first shovel in the dirt, Barnett and McMillan toured other training facilities and talked to area instructors. But, they didn’t want to get stuck in a paralysis-by-analysis situation.

Door forcible entry props

“When you look at what we’ve been able to get built in this timeframe it is pretty phenomenal,” Barnett says. “We’ve been able to stretch the dollars more because we didn’t put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a study.”

Benchmarking other facilities aside, this wasn’t Barnett’s first rodeo. Much of what he’s learned at industrial firefighting came into play at the MAAC.

“I had a training facility in Denver at a refinery, and we got to redo that a couple of times and do different improvements. We started rebuilding the BP facility [in nearby Whiting, Indiana] and getting that training center back up to where it was, because it was neglected for so long. Just having that experience and that I’ve done training all my life and shoestring-budget training.”

McMillan is quick to tell you that he built his field of dreams firefighter training center with the mantra, “If you build it, they will come.” But the preliminary machinations necessary to make the site come into being are as impressive as the training offerings themselves. And this story and its lessons are important for anyone looking to build a similar training facility.

But first, it is important to know how firefighters in Indiana are trained. Prior to 9/11, like much of the country, each fire department trained its own cadets and firefighters. Following the attacks, the state government divided Indiana into 10 firefighter training districts. The state allocates money to each district for firefighter training. District 1 is a five-county area in the state’s northwest corner. It is the second most populated of the 10 districts and has more than 70 fire departments and about 2,000 firefighters coming from a mixture of urban career departments, suburban combination departments, and rural volunteer departments. It is also the district where the MAAC facility is located.

Mike Parks

Above: Mike Parks, part of the MAAC leadership team and training coordinator for District 1.

Mike Parks is 26-year fire service veteran who is a division chief for Crown Point (IN) Fire Rescue; in 2007 he became the District 1 training coordinator. Before the district model was put in place, departments conducted their own training, he says. They can still do that, or they can send students to district-run training that is typically held at one of several host departments. But District 1 never had a true home of its own.

“There was so much district stuff at Crown Point, that I literally could not 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.”

District 1 and the MAAC Foundation now have a memorandum of understanding in place spelling out that the district provides instructors and equipment and MAAC provides the facility for first responder training. This paved the way for District 1 to unlock state grant money to buy equipment — $300,000 so far. And the MAAC now serves as a repository for all of that District 1 training equipment that cluttered Parks’ department or was floating around on loan somewhere — everything goes in and out of MAAC and it is trackable, he says.

To the casual observer, it may seem like pulling this off should have been a slam-dunk, a no-brainer. Consider these components. McMillan sells most of his interests in Task Force Tips and Amkus, establishes the nonprofit MAAC Foundation to run the training center, pumps nearly $3 million of his own money into the foundation, the state coughs up about a 10 percent match, add water and stir and — poof — you have an elite center that solves a regional training problem.

A class at the MAAC

Above: A pump operator class taking place at the MAAC.

So, was it that easy?

“It was hard,” Parks says. “It was most certainly difficult because it’s a competitive thing. I’m sure there are people … that aren’t happy that we got that money because they didn’t.”

“There’s a lot of crazy arguments that you get into,” Barnett says. “The state will buy you the forcible-entry door prop, but they won’t fund the pieces and parts that are the consumables. Gasoline: will they buy it or will they not, sometimes they will sometimes they won’t. I need gasoline to run the saws.”

One problem, Parks says, is that some were angling to create a central fire academy near Indianapolis and they saw the district training model as a threat. But at a time when attracting paid-on call and volunteer firefighters is harder than ever, many others opposed a one-stop academy near the state’s capital.

“We have enough trouble keeping people regional. We are not going to be able to get them to take time out of their lives to go to Indy,” Parks says. “Even on the career side, we’ve found that most of the departments for their new hires would prefer to keep them local.”

Indiana State Fire Marshal James Greeson says the state is taking a harder look at the idea of a central facility for firefighter training.

“While regional training is at the cornerstone of the IFPSATS (Indiana Fire and Public Safety Academy Training System), there is a desire to develop specialized training curricula, such as an executive leadership training course, to be delivered at a centralized location in the state,” Greeson says. “This doesn’t necessarily mean we need a new brick-and-mortar structure to offer this type of specialized programming, so long as we have the infrastructure and support of the fire service at the local level.”

And in the middle of wooing the state to fund the equipment and instructor salaries, a new Governor was elected. That meant bringing a new administration up to speed on the importance of the MAAC project. Do so takes time and naturally slowed the progress, Parks says.

So with state officials finally on board, what else could stand in the way? As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is credited with saying: “All politics is local.” And in this case, local politics nearly derailed the project.

“They were such a pain,” McMillan says of local government officials. “If you get [an official] who thinks he’s god, all of a sudden the littlest, stupidest detail is an impediment. They just have no flexibility.”

In the end, McMillan got around an obstructing official by securing an exemption from an oversight board. “If that hadn’t happened, I think we wouldn’t be talking about this,” he says.

Barnett agrees saying that one of the lessons others looking to build similar partnership facilities can take from MAAC’s experience is to get all of the approvals early in the process.

And this experience highlights in part why McMillan set up the MAAC under a foundation that’s run by a board of directors directly tied to the emergency response community.

“I’ve been around the barn long enough to know that most academies are under-utilized because they are owned by a department and they sit 90 percent of the time,” McMillan says. Additionally, these facilities can start off open to firefighters from other departments, but may not remain so.

“When you put a facility with a particular fire department … they all make promises about how they are going to share their toy with all the other fire departments until somebody comes in and makes a mistake — they over heat a unit and something gets damaged, or somebody gets hurt. Then the fire chief says, ‘it’s ours, ours alone,’” McMillan says. “I wanted to have an independent facility that has a board of adults that can bring representation from EMS, fire and police, but not controlled by any one constituency.”

And remember, the MAAC is still learning to crawl; it has a lot of growing pains to come. The most immediate pain to relieve will be staffing. They will need people to handle scheduling, to be on hand to ensure all the safety and housekeeping rules are followed and they’ll need more instructors as the demand for classes grows.

Another near-term goal for MAAC organizers is to establish written operating procedures and guidelines for how training can and cannot be conducted on the site. For example, those using the live-fire props must do so in accordance with NFPA 1403.

“If a group comes in and thinks they are going to do live-fire training without all of the 1403 compliance, it’s not going to happen,” Parks says. “It’s not going to be a free-for-all.”

“What’s threatening a lot of facilities is they don’t have anything and it sometimes gets them in trouble,” Barnett says. “They unlock the gate, but didn’t tell anyone the rules. We’re building some of that.”

More long term, MAAC leaders will need to ensure funding for the operation is sustainable. To get there, they have a few options on the table.

Among those options will be to charge for facility use. Charging industrial companies to train their fire and rescue personnel are one such option, as is hosting leadership-building events. Amkus and TFT pay a monthly fee to use the facility for testing and demos. The MAAC may also become a CPAT test site for career department; they already have the necessary equipment in place. The foundation will do fundraising and has one expert in that field already on staff. They may also begin charging a small fee for fire departments who use the facility; up to this point, all District 1 training is free to firefighters and departments. And Parks says area fire chiefs are receptive to a small fee that focus on consumable items.

“Since we started the districts, the state has always funded it as a kind of free program. We don’t necessarily agree that that’s the best model,” Parks says. “The department or the individual needs to make an investment. If a department comes here to do training and they use 100 gallons of propane and seven sheets of OSB, and eight hinges on the forced-entry prop, it should be kind of like a restaurant where you got to pay your bill.”

They will also be pushing to change how the state funds firefighter training.

“With this public/private partnership there were a lot of reservations about it, because it had never been done before,” Parks says. “The state wanted to focus money on stuff that was portable, so if it ever went south, we’d be able to move it to other locations.”

That’s something McMillan and Barnett would like to see change. He’d like to see a state law that provides a “10 cents on the dollar per year” payment from state money to facilities like the MAAC that were built with local money. That state money would be used to run the facility — making it sustainable. “That’s where I’m going with it,” McMillan says.

Greeson says the state has put up money in the past for permanent training facilities.

“The state has already invested in brick-and-mortar facilities at the local level — in fact, money was invested into training infrastructure maintenance and repair in every IDHS district in 2016,” he says. “We were honored to be able to support locals in this capacity. Moreover, classroom facilities and fire training towers were recently built in several locations across Indiana to support hands-on training initiatives.”

Finding that perfect combination of someone like McMillan who has the financial means, the passion for volunteer fire service training and a direct business connection to firefighting may not come easy for other areas in the state or across the country looking to replicate the MAAC. But, getting statutorily operating funds is a huge step in that direction.

“Are they looking at this, oh yeah,” McMillan said of others around the state. It will be difficult, but if they have matching money that they can fundraise against, guaranteed by statute, that’s a pretty compelling argument.”

Greeson concurs that the state has been eagerly watching how the MAAC has developed. “As we continue to develop the IFPSATS, the state will always welcome partnerships and working relationships like the model utilized in northwest Indiana,” he says. He also praised McMillan’s commitment to firefighter education.

“The McMillan family has a long history of servant leadership in the fire service. This latest investment by Mr. McMillan solidifies his family’s commitment to fire and public safety training in Northwest Indiana,” Greeson says. “The partnership between the State of Indiana, the McMillan family, and the Multi Agency Academic Cooperation serves as an example of exemplary partnership and a great model for the future of fire and public safety training in Indiana.”

Regardless of what happens around the state, MAAC appears poised for growth. The foundation already owns more adjacent land and Parks says it would surprise him to see an auditorium-style classroom built in the coming five to 10 years.

“If we solve the operational piece, it is going to grow tremendously,” Barnett says. “Training centers are never finished; I’ve been telling Stew that for a while now. If Stewart is very successful with the state and the local folks, you are going to see something quite unique and in five to 10 years you will see several others in the state. That’s the exciting part from my standpoint. [This] is just the start of something that can get really, really big.”

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 holds 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. He can be reached at rick.markley11@gmail.com.

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