HELENA – The Rocky Mountain Emergency Services Training Center, at the Helena Regional Airport, was created more than 20 years ago. Today, it gives hundreds of firefighters a year a chance to practice dealing with aircraft fires.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte visited the facility Friday to learn more about its operations.
“This facility trains emergency response professionals all over the country,” he said. “They’re preparing these folks to make sure our communities are safer, across the state and across the country.”
Federal aviation regulators require firefighters to undergo initial training to work on airport crews, and then do an annual follow-up course to maintain their certification.
“That’s where this facility really shines,” said airport director Jeff Wadekamper.
Leaders demonstrated some of their training exercises. The facility features life-size airplane models, and they can use propane to create everything from a burning engine to a full-scale fire around the fuselage. Firefighters can then put out the flames using a specialized airport fire engine.
The fire system is fully computerized, and features a number of emergency shutoffs in case of a problem.
Wadekamper said firefighters only use water during the exercises, but the center’s computer system can simulate what would happen if they used foam or other tools.
“It’s more cost-effective, and it’s more sensitive to the environment,” he said.
Wadekamper said the Rocky Mountain Training Center is unique in Montana, and one of only three facilities of its kind west of the Mississippi River.
“There are other fire training centers scattered around the West – smaller ones – but they don’t have the high-tech, safer, environmentally friendly nature that this fire training center has,” he said.
That unique profile means the center brings in first responders from well beyond the immediate area. Wadekamper said the facility can now run entirely on its own user fees – and actually generate revenue for the airport.
Right now, about 500 firefighters a year train there. Wadekamper expects that number could nearly double in the future, especially after a training facility at the Salt Lake City International Airport closed earlier this year.
“We’re seeing a large surge in our interest level here from other organizations that want to come here,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a real boost in business.”
The training center has expanded its facilities over the years. It now features a driving track, where law enforcement can do high-speed vehicle training. They also received two real decommissioned planes, from Delta Air Lines and from FedEx. Wadekamper said they are looking to add a multi-story structure fire trainer, to make the facility more of a complete fire academy.
Gianforte said he’s impressed by the training center’s success. He said continued growth will be good news for the whole state.
“Now it’s operating at a profit and bringing folks into Montana that are contributing to our local economy,” he said.
Gianforte said he is currently working on legislation in Congress to improve resources for first responders, especially EMS providers in rural areas.
“We need to continue to make sure our rural communities have the equipment and the training they need to make sure their communities are safe,” he said.