For Mike Schwankl of Breezy Point, being a firefighter started as a way to give back and turned into a career.
Since December he’s been working full time for FIRE — Fire Instruction and Rescue Education — a local company that provides training to emergency services personnel as well as private companies.
It’s fitting that in August, Schwankl will have spent 10 years with the Pequot Lakes Fire Department.
Schwankl’s desire to join the Pequot Lakes Fire Department was partly inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was an eye-opener to what these people do for us,” Schwankl said of the firefighters involved in the tragedy. “It was something I could do to help out (in the community) a little bit.”
He said one of the hardest parts of firefighting is reading the situation: knowing how a fire will spread or when a building might collapse. Lack of understanding and training, he said, are what gets people into trouble.
FIRE does many different forms of training. The company performs more live burn training than any other training company in the state, Schwankl said, and specializes training to certain regions. In this area, ice rescue is an important element of training. In other areas, rescue situations could require ropes or removing people from small spaces, such as deep holes, getting injured people up steep hills in the woods, or saving someone who is trapped in a grain bin.
The work at FIRE is varied. Not long ago, Schwankl spent time in Ontario training the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs on advanced bus extraction. Other times he’s taught manufacturing companies confined space rescue, or how to help someone who might be working in a confined space who encounters an emergency.
While FIRE specializes in custom training sessions, the company also provides the required trainings for new firefighters and continued training as things change in the field. And Schwankl said they nearly always are changing.
For example, as building materials have changed over the years, so have how quickly and how hot they burn. Schwankl said that if you were to take a pound of standard materials from a house built 30 years ago — a combination of everything that’s inside a house — it would burn at around 8,000 BTUs. Take a pound of the same sort of material from a house built recently, he said, and it would burn at about 20,000 BTUs.
He pointed out that today a lot of building materials are made from petroleum, a fuel. New materials are also lighter and cheaper, he said, saying he’d prefer to fight a fire in an old farmhouse than in a brand new house any day.
He said that of the fires he’s personally been called to where there have been fatalities, one of the contributing factors has been a non-working smoke alarm.
“Your likelihood of survival increases exponentially when you have a smoke detector,” Schwankl said. “Change your clocks, change your batteries,” he added, referring to the two time changes of the year. Blowing out the smoke detectors with canned air is also wise.
Often smoke detectors beep when they’re dusty or running out of batteries, and people tend to remove the battery and leave the detector hanging from the ceiling, often forgetting to fix the problem.
Because fires produce carbon monoxide, a sleeping resident may not wake up to smoke before the carbon monoxide has impaired him or her, Schwankl said. Smoke detectors can save sleeping residents before it’s too late.
Aside from being able to give back to the community, Schwankl enjoys being a part of the fire department because of the camaraderie of the group.
“It’s a bunch of guys and gals around that’ll do anything for you,” he said. Schwankl has nine siblings, but says, “Now I have a whole pile of ‘em.”
He said it’s not just the firefighters who put in the time—it’s their families, too.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to get up from Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving or Easter to go fight a fire,” Schwankl said. And yet, he said, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I’ll be on the department ‘til they cart me out of here.”