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Portage firemen may help in Florida

By Jen Hirt Record-Courier staff writer Published: July 9, 1998 12:00 AM

But while the majority of viewers are generally relieved they don't have to deal with such devastation, Broska and his coworkers are "chomping at the bit" to immerse themselves in Florida's firefighting effort.

"I have a ton of guys waiting to get on a plane, right now," Broska said. On Monday, Chief Gerald Vicha received permission from city council to pursue the possibility. Broska said he contacted other county fire departments over the holiday weekend.

"I don't think we'd have a problem getting 50 to 100 guys to go," he said.

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Unfortunately, interest isn't the main obstacle.

Firefighters in northeast Ohio generally don't have the specialized training needed for subduing wildfires, although they can probably fight structure fires with their eyes closed.

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Wildfires, not structure fires, are what has been plaguing Florida since Memorial Day. Nearly 2,000 fires have burned 474,000 acres and destroyed 300 homes. $116 million has been spent on 7,000 firefighters.

When Broska got the idea to help, he started coordinating the effort through the state fire marshall's office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He finally got through to Tallahassee, Fla., but learned that special wildfire training was needed.

"Fighting wildfires is entirely different," he explained. "You're cutting firelines, you have limited water, you're sitting out there in smoky conditions.

"Just the physical aspects are tremendous. You might be 10 to 15 miles into the woods with your only supplies on your back. You have to pass a physical agility test, and be able to run 1 1/2 miles in 11 minutes. It's not like every firefighter in American can train for something like that," he said.

The closest Portage County firefighters may get to "wildfires" are minor brushfires, but Broska hasn't given up. If his men can't be on the front lines, they can still provide paramedic skills and general relief. He hopes that if a group is selected to help, they might cover normal fire department calls while the Florida firefighters take some time off to recuperate.

"There's a lot of red tape to cut through. We have to worry about insurance and wages. We have to go through the proper channels," he said.

Even if area firefighters don't end up in Florida, the attempt to do so has taught them what they have to do to help out in the future.

"We'd like to organize a northeast Ohio task force to get this training," explained Brouska. The force would then be listed nationally, and would be sent around the region when needed.

"All we saw were our brothers needing help," he said. "But we're jacks of all trades, and masters of none."

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