CLEARWATER — Fire departments from Treasure Island to Tarpon Springs and all points in between participated in Pinellas County’s 12th annual Fire Operations 101 event, held at the Fire Training Center behind Station 48 on Belcher Road in Clearwater on May 13. 

The ground operation for civilians, media members and elected officials was hosted by the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association and local International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) affiliates. It featured stations and demonstrations recreating situations department members face on a daily basis, including vehicle extrications, interior fire attacks, EMS and search-and-rescue operations.

Several local and state government officials, including state Rep. Lindsay Cross, attended the six-hour event, and many came away impressed with the intensity and authenticity of the drills.

“I’m so impressed with what the crews do,” Cross said as she observed the activities on a sweltering Saturday morning. “And I think it’s important for every elected official to come out here because it shows the importance of these crews and how they save lives and property on a daily basis.”

According to Rick Pauley, the Florida Professional Firefighters second district vice president, the fire ops event plays an important role in helping elected officials understand the challenges all fire fighters face.

“I think it’s incredibly important for elected officials to see what we do,” Pauley said as he surveyed the sprawling training site. A team from the Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue Department was conducting the vehicle extrications, Oldsmar Fire Rescue members assisted with the smoke-filled interior attack building and ladders from two Clearwater fire engines towered overhead. “I think it’s a real eye opener when it comes to the physicality of our job, and they see it can be very overwhelming. It’s not for those people who have claustrophobia or are afraid of the dark.”

Indeed, after taking his turn in the smoky, pitch-black environs of the interior attack building, Indian Rocks Beach City Commissioner Lan Vaughan said he had a newfound appreciation for the profession.

“They told me to always look up so you can see if something falls on you, but you’re stepping through complete darkness,” Vaughan said as he removed his suit. He added that he’d rate the experience “a nine.”

Over at the vehicle extrication site, Oldsmar City Council member Andrew Knapp felt the heft of the Jaws of Life and cracked open a window while Indian Rocks Beach Commissioner Denise Houseberg watched.

“It’s an eye-opener, definitely,” Houseberg said when asked how she felt attending her first Fire Ops 101.

Pauley, who also serves as president of IAFF Local 47, praised the Clearwater department and Station 48 for hosting the event this year, the first time Fire Ops 101 has been held since the pandemic.

“Our partnership with CFD has been incredible,” he said, citing the large footprint and two-story tower as being highly beneficial for the operations. “It couldn’t have worked out better. Hopefully, we can do this every year because I think it’s important to be consistent so we can reach as many officials as possible.”

When asked why he felt the Fire Ops 101 event was beneficial for the attendees, who also included Oldsmar Mayor Dan Saracki and Belleair Bluffs commissioners Joe Barkley and Karen Rafferty, Pauley didn’t hesitate.

“When we’re negotiating for pay, benefits, and equipment, when commission members see our requests, they always ask us why we spend so much money,” he said. He related the story of an elected official who once questioned a department’s Gatorade budget before downing nine bottles of the rehydration drink during the drills. “But after they come out of here, they never ask why!”