The primary purpose of a fire department and the core reason for its existence is to fight fire. At the Helena Fire Department, this core work is carried out primarily by the members of the Suppression Division. The Division is comprised of twenty-nine members organized into two shifts of ten and one shift of nine. These shifts work 24 hours on, 48 hours off in what is called the 24/48 schedule. When vacations and days off are factored in, the net result is a six person initial fire response originating out of two stations. To compensate for the small initial attack force, the Suppression Division relies on early notification, rapid response and aggressive interior attack to suppress fires before they can increase too drastically in size. These tactics have mostly been successful, with most structure fires in Helena being held to “room and contents” and occasionally to “building of origin” in size.
In those instances where the above tactics are unsuccessful, day staff personnel and off-duty members are called back to work using a pager system to create a larger suppression force. Additionally, we make such requests for assistance of our mutual aid neighbors on larger incidents. In most such cases, the fire has usually gone undetected for a long period of time. These usually become defensive fires requiring the application of large amounts of water from master stream devices which are capable of delivering hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water a minute. The Stedman Foundry Fire in December of 2003 would be an example. Fortunately, fires of such magnitude are rare.
The Suppression Division also uses state-of-the-art technology to augment their aggressive initial fire attack: including 1) the most up-to-date personal protective equipment, 2) thermal imaging cameras (revealing fire hot-spots), 3) compressed air foam systems (CAFS) and 4) mobile data terminals (MDTs) which will allow on-scene commanders to access information pertinent to the incident. Even with all these technological advances, most actual fire fighting is still carried out using brute, manual labor to search out and extinguish fires. A physically fit, appropriately trained and equipped, rapidly deployed, sufficiently sized workforce is still the key to successful fire suppression.
Not all fires occur in structures and Helena, with its vast urban/wildland interface border, has great potential to be threatened by wildfire. The Suppression Division has two specially equipped wildland firefighting vehicles to counter that threat. These are smaller (F-550) trucks with slide-out pump assemblies specifically designed to be more agile and mobile for the wildland environment. The Division personnel are equipped with wildland personal protective equipment and the wildland vehicles carry equipment and tools more appropriate for wildland firefighting. During wildland fire season all arbitrary borders are erased. Any report of smoke anywhere in the urban/wildland interface generates an immediate notification and response from Helena Fire, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and the appropriate Jefferson County and/or Lewis and Clark County fire departments. In 2007 alone, such immediate and over-whelming response has prevented three very serious fires from becoming catastrophic.
While not actually engaged in fire-fighting, the Suppression Division spends a great deal of time maintaining its apparatus and equipment, training for any and all eventualities, conducting 720 fire safety inspections and 72 preincident plans annually. We also provide highly skilled emergency medical care (outlined elsewhere on this web site) to our community.