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Firefighters Tim Little, Kyle Little and Ben Cumber search for an address on the county map. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Firefighters re-learn how to navigate Hubbard County highways

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Hubbard County's Emergency Management Director Brian Halbasch wants to ensure that hesitating to ask for directions isn't a "guy thing."

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Especially during an emergency.

So last week he put on a tutorial for the Park Rapids Fire Department, Address Finding 101 in Hubbard County.

That was after volunteer firefighters traded war stories about trying to find emergencies when they're hopped up on adrenalin and rushing to the scene - somewhere.

They've gotten lost. They hate it.

They also hate bothering dispatchers when they know they're busy during an emergency.

"Guys, if it was my house I'd call 50, 60 times if I needed to get directions," Halbasch gently chided them.

Mostly firefighters were looking for a basic direction such as "head north on 71."

But Halbasch said the dispatchers are ready and willing to be bothered.

"Obviously if we're sending people in the wrong direction we're not helping anybody," he said.

"Once you get your gear on and get rolling, would you rather have the message sent on radio or pagers?" Halbasch asked.

Usually that initial call will come over the radio for expediency's sake, he said. But a page works just as well.

The session last week was a monthly training meeting the department conducts.

Since several new members have joined, chief Donn Hoffman reasoned it wasn't a bad idea to get back to the basics.

The labyrinth of Hubbard County's road system, weaving in and around hundreds of lakes and forests, can be a challenge when speed and accuracy are essential. There are loops, trails, roads and circles in addition to streets and avenues.

"Some streets stop and continue three miles down," assistant Fire Chief Terry Long said.

"The whole county's like that," one firefighter grumbled to laughter.

So Halbasch came to the rescue.

"Start with the street first," he suggested, telling the firefighters how the numbering system works, how parallel roads are designated, how to tell whether a blue number, an emergency address, will be on your right or left.

In the process they all discussed where certain roads have been vacated and county maps have not kept up, like Half Moon Road, vacated for an environmental easement.

Quirks like that drive emergency personnel wild.

Dispatchers are typically flipping back and forth to several computer screens with GPS information to guide crews in the field. And it can be exasperating, especially under pressure.

Dispatchers can only give out the best information they've been given, and sometimes that can be tricky.

Halbasch said older residents will give their address with a township road, not the designations implemented when the emergency system went into effect years ago.

People panicked in an emergency might not be the most reliable givers of directions.

But along with those explanations came a subtle reminder: 'Don't be typical guys. Ask for directions.'

"Brian Halbasch is top notch," Hofman said after the training session. "I was really happy with it."

Later this spring, the entire department, all 26, will go through 80 hours of Firefighters II training. Classes are put on by Moorhead Technical College, using Minnesota experts like fire marshal Kevin Mahle.

Training is essential to keep up, Hoffman maintains.

One of the twice-monthly meetings requiring attendance is a business meeting.

"We discuss finance, purchases, truck and equipment issues, events like the Governor's Fishing Opener. We're part of that," Hoffman said.

The department includes several city employees including Mayor Pat Mikesh and requires a hefty time commitment aside from rushing to fires.

It costs Park Rapids $2,600 per person to outfit a firefighter.

DNR grants have been defraying part of those expenses, but cannot be relied upon to continue indefinitely, Hoffman said.

Each class costs around $800 per person. Certification for various skills and upkeep of those certifications is extra.

Firefighters are on call 24/7. They get paid hourly per call, but the wages are so low, around $11 per hour, they're considered volunteers.

There's no pay for training.

The squad typically answers 80-85 calls annually. In 2012 there were 67 calls, a relatively low number.

Hoffman can't ascribe that to anything but luck, especially with the tinder dry conditions and number of grass fires last summer.

They're all learning a new radio system, Minnesota's Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response.

Most of Hubbard County switched on Jan. 1. The new system allows user groups, such as personnel assigned to an emergency, to communicate with each other without bothering other agencies or the rest of the counties. And some firefighters think that may have complicated the task of finding addresses.

When the training was done, Halbasch tested the crews' knowledge.

He doled out current maps and asked them find addresses he'd selected.

By evening's end, they were spot on. And probably a bit more humble.

Hoffman said although all are certified to drive various fire engines, some seem OK with waiting their turn.

"You have to be qualified," he said. "You have to go through our training and prove yourself to our instructor and then you're OK to run that unit. I think they all are qualified to drive.

"Typically what happens you have your guys that always make it there first.

"There are guys that probably would shy away from it, but they're all supposed to be qualified, typically annually for pump operations," Hoffman said.

But those "first guys" are the ones Halbasch's course was aimed at.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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