GFFR adds four rookies; reorganizes administration and promotes first female officer

Great Falls Fire Rescue is running a rookie training academy for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started, has adjusted the organizational structure and promoted the first female firefighter to the officer ranks.

Four rookies are nearing the end of their eight-week training program and will soon be getting their shift assignments and begin running calls with engine companies.

Adding these four firefighters will begin to fill some of the vacancies created over the last year a half by retirements, promotions and other changes. GFFR will run another rookie academy later this summer with another four firefighters.

All four of the rookies currently training have background in the fire service.

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Brady Srna was with a professional fire department in Salina, Kansas for seven and a half years; Cody Seccombe has six years of firefighting experience with the forest service; Chase Perry spent two and a half years doing wildland firefighting in Bozeman and Chris Lee has served six years with Black Eagle Volunteer Fire Department.

Srna and his wife moved to Great Falls about two years ago and was working elsewhere, but missed the fire service. Seccombe and his wife both worked for the forest services in the Helena area and “wanted to make this place home,” he said of coming to Great Falls.

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Perry graduated from college and wanted to start his career and since he’s from Great Falls, “wanted to settle down here.” His father is also with GFFR. Lee is also from Great Falls and “sees no sense in leaving Great Falls.”

The rookies have been training on the basics of firefighting and though they have experience, the training program familiarizes them with how GFFR operates, introduces them to different officers and other firefighters they’ll be working with on shift.

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Srna said he liked the training program in that much of it is scenario based and in context so they can put their skills into action. Perry said he enjoyed working with different crews every day and getting a feel for how different officers operate.

On June 25, the rookies were doing live burn training in a house that had been acquired by Habitat for Humanity and deemed unsalvageable, so the nonprofit partnered with GFFR to provide the training opportunity.

On Friday, they were training on fires started within the structure, but there was no intention of burning it down since they’ll continue using the house this week for things like ventilating roofs properly.

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Eventually, the house will be demolished to make way for a new structure from Habitat for Humanity.

During the live burn training, Srna said it was more realistic to have a house.

“We know the layout of the training center, we know where we’re going, so this is nice since it’s not a big box,” he said.

Perry said it was helpful to train on the structure in a residential area since it introduced more risks, which are realistic in responding to structure fires in the community such as nearby structures, fences, cars and passersby.

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Fire Chief Jeremy Jones said that COVID changed the way GFFR and other Montana fire departments recruit, screen and select new firefighters.

GFFR and other Montana departments typically use the testing consortium, but before COVID, they’d been talking about using a company called PST out of Washington, to run the test. COVID sped that conversation up and they contracted with the company to run the last round of firefighter testing. They might continue going in that director for testing, Jones said, but it’s not finalized yet.

The organizational structure has also changed at GFFR.

Four new rookies on the truck floor at Great Falls Fire Rescue

The former fire marshall left the city, as did the deputy fire marshal earlier this year. With that change, Jones promoted Mike McIntosh to fire marshal, but instead of adding a captain into that division, he’s adding two more civilian deputy fire marshals, bringing to the total to three. They’ll have the same authority as the fire marshal.

Jones has also added a new deputy chief of EMS position, which took someone from the truck floor into the administrative side. That selection will be announced this week. 

He’s also adding a community risk reduction manager who will handle emergency management, public health, education and outreach and more. He’s interviewing for that position this week and expects to make a selection soon. That person will work with the fire prevention division and others.

Some of these positions were created using vacancy savings and some will need budget increases.

Jones said that in 2015, the commission approved funding for two additional firefighters and was planned to add two new firefighters per year for a total of four years to bring the department to full staffing, but that didn’t happen, so they’re working within their resources to better focus in areas of more importance.

On June 29, the department will swear in its first female officer as Maren Reilly has been promoted to lieutenant. 

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Reilly marked 10 years with the department in February and was the second female firefighter hired at GFFR. She had previously worked as a volunteer firefighter at the Lockwood Fire District.

The department hired its first paid female firefighter in 1982.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, as of 2018, there were 93,700 female firefighters, of eight percent of the total, in the U.S. Of the career firefighters, 14,200 or four percent were female. There were 78,500 female volunteer firefighters of 11 percent of the total volunteers.

Reilly told The Electric that she’s excited about the promotion and “thankful for the promotion, it’s a super humbling place to be.”

She said she’s grateful to the people who helped her get to this point in her career.

To be considered for the promotion, it’s a mix of time with the department, certifications, a letter from their battalion chief, assessments and interviews.

In 2018, Reilly told The Electric that it’s less about men and women and more about making the city a safer place.

“It’s definitely doable,” for women, Reilly told The Electric when the department hired its third female firefighter. “It’s more about can you do the job and make Great Falls safer.”

Reilly gives credit to Kathy Taylor, the first female firefighter hired at GFFR. Though Thomas was only with the department for a few years, Reilly said, “I feel like her having been on the department was really important.”

When Reilly was hired in 2011, it was a change for many of the firefighters since most hadn’t worked with e female firefighter before.

“There were some challenges and it took a little time, but in 10 years, things have worked themselves out,” she said.