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Senior Firefighter Travis Elich (above) and Senior Firefighter Shane Gilliss (below) are two of the certified driver/operators with the Minot Fire Department. They're responsible for getting the crew and vehicle to the scene of an incident safely, and are in charge of the truck at the scene.
It’s my truck.
That’s the everyday philosophy of Senior Firefighter Shane Gilliss and Senior Firefighter Travis Elich. Both men are driver/operators for the Minot Fire Department. They will very clearly tell you the same thing when asked to describe their role: It’s my truck.
“That’s how I feel. We probably take care of them better than we take care of our own trucks,” Gilliss said.
“We take a lot of pride in our trucks. We have to because our job performance depends on that pride,” he said.
Gilliss and Elich are among nine firefighters who were certified this year as driver/operators. The department has 21 certified driver/operators that are qualified to drive any of the department’s five engines, including the massive 48-foot platform truck.
The normal 12-month timeline to achieve driver/operator certification was shortened to six or seven months by necessity.
“We’ve promoted a lot of our upper leadership, and that left holes for senior firefighters. We were also short on qualified drivers,” said Fire Chief Kelli Kronschnabel. “We wanted to make sure those firefighters we were asking to complete this training were ready for that challenge, and they were.”
Kronschnabel said the department presented information to the City’s Human Resources officials, seeking permission to fast track the training.
“They agreed with us that this was necessary,” the chief said. “The training took most of our summer, and almost everything else was put on hold. This was priority No. 1 for a number of reasons. Being short on drivers causes a lot of issues, from large amounts of overtime to staff burnout. It takes a toll on the entire department.”
The Pumping Apparatus Driver/Operator training involves a lot of classroom time (and an 800-page manual) and as much hands-on training as possible.
“This summer, we basically ran a hands-on boot camp,” Elich said. “They tested us on every scenario they could think of. You’d be in the middle of a scenario, and they’d shut off your water. Or they’d shut off the pump. Then you’d have to figure out how to solve the problem.”
Gilliss said the training is intense, especially with the duration essentially cut in half.
“It’s a lot of book work and testing, but the majority of the training is getting your hands on every piece of equipment,” he said. “Pumping water is pumping water, but the equipment is a little different on each truck, so you have to physically do it; you can’t learn that from a book.”
The man in charge of that training is Capt. Austin Burns, the department’s training officer.
“You train how you fight, and you fight how you train. That’s what I preach,” Burns said. “We need to be prepared for any situation that could arise. We call them low frequency, high-risk events. They may not happen often, but we still have to be prepared.”
Firefighters need to mentally access a lot of information when they arrive on a scene, Burns said.
“It’s like having information on a jump drive when you get to a scene. You plug that drive into your head, sort through the files, and find the right information,” he said. “That’s why we train as much as we do. That information has to be readily available in your memory.”
Burns said the driver/operator position plays a vital role in the department.
“Their No. 1 priority is getting to the scene safely. That may sound easy, but a lot of factors go into arriving safely; weather conditions, traffic, location of the call. We can’t help protect life and property if we don’t get there,” he said.
The intense hands-on training pays off for driver/operators, including when it comes to the actual driving part of their job. Driving the large engines, especially the 48-foot platform truck, through the streets of Minot isn’t easy. Some residential streets are narrow, especially if vehicles are parked on the street. Traffic can be difficult to negotiate, too.
“People are generally good about pulling over when they see our lights or hear the sirens, but sometimes they stop in the middle of the road because they panic. Then you have to hit the horn to get them to move over. But most people are really good about moving over right away,” Gilliss said.
“Slow is fast, especially with the platform truck,” Elich added.
Drivers must follow traffic laws, with a few exceptions: They can exceed the posted speed limit by 10 miles per hour, they can park wherever they need to, and they can drive in the opposite direction of traffic if necessary. They do have technology aboard that allows them to change traffic signals to green, but they still have to slow down at the intersection before continuing with caution. Trucks must stop at all red lights or stop signs before proceeding to ensure a safe response.
“This is a big truck, and Minot has a lot of narrow streets. That makes for a difficult combination sometimes,” Gilliss said. “I’ve had to turn off Third Street onto Central Avenue near Ebeneezer’s, and that is not an easy corner to take with a 48-foot truck. It’s a really tight squeeze.”
The department’s trucks are equipped with mounted laptops that provide crew members with crucial information on the way to a scene.
“It allows us to track all responding trucks, and it includes things like building codes if we need to get into a locked building,” Elich said. “It’s vital that we have as much information as possible before we get to the scene.”
A driver is assigned to the platform truck every day. The vehicle’s ladders can extend 95 feet into the air, and it’s used to reach heights over three stories. It does not respond to medical calls, unlike the other engines.
Elich and Gilliss know every inch of the 48-foot truck and the rest of the department’s vehicles.
“My day starts at 8 a.m. with a morning truck check. We check everything: fuel levels, lights, air packs, radios, gauges, water levels, foam levels, and all of the equipment on the truck,” Elich said. “We make sure that if that truck is called to respond, it’s ready to roll.”
Actually, both men say their day begins earlier than 8 a.m. “I like to say that 7:30 a.m. is on time,” Gilliss said. “When I get here, I’ll do the truck check, but I also want to talk to the driver from the previous shift to see if there’s anything I need to know.”
Once the crew arrives on a scene, the driver/operator is in charge of the truck. That means making sure the proper hoses are pulled, making sure the necessary amount of water at the proper pressure is being supplied to crew members, and making sure equipment is available.
“When we’re on scene, I’m doing anything necessary: making sure the water is pumping at the proper pressure, pulling lines, scene lighting, getting tools ready…anything that needs to be done, I’m doing it,” Gilliss said.
Both drivers know crew members depend on them to make sure trucks are ready to roll when called and when they’re on the scene of an event. Burns said the department has very high expectations of its driver/operators.
“We’re relying on them to provide the right amount of water at the proper pressure so we can do our job. We’re relying on them for tools. That’s why we spend so much time training,” Burns said. “We rely on that person if we’re inside a building that’s on fire. Think about that.”