Ashland Fire & Rescue firefighters are receiving an average of less than 38 percent of recommended training to fight fires and handle non-medical emergencies, according to the fire department's annual report that was released this month.

Ashland Fire & Rescue firefighters are receiving an average of less than 38 percent of recommended training to fight fires and handle non-medical emergencies, according to the fire department's annual report that was released this month.

Ashland's firefighters, who are also paramedics, meet all requirements for paramedic training.

But they are falling short of the 22 hours of fire suppression training per month per firefighter recommended by the national Insurance Services Office, Fire Chief John Karns said.

The National Fire Protection Association has a similar training recommendation, he said.

The ISO and NFPA recommendations are not legally binding, but they are used as guidelines by fire departments.

"We're still accomplishing the medical training," Karns said. "We're mandated to do so by county, state and federal requirements. What has suffered is fire suppression training over the years. That has fallen prey to the budget."

During 2010, 67 percent of incidents handled by the fire department were emergency medical calls. Actual fires accounted for just 3 percent.

Responding to car accidents without injuries, false alarms and reports of smoke accounted for the bulk of remaining incidents.

Although fires are relatively rare, their effects can be devastating, as last year's Oak Knoll fire that destroyed 11 homes in Ashland demonstrated. No one was killed.

Karns said Ashland's firefighter/paramedics are prepared to fight fires, despite the training shortfalls. However, he said there is always room for improvement.

"I want them to have training to the point that they feel confident and know they can accomplish tasks with no questions asked and no second-guessing," Karns said. "I want them to be on top of their game."

Firefighter/paramedics are able to do training on short tasks such as hooking hoses to hydrants and putting ladders against buildings, he said.

But when they try to do training on more advanced, time-consuming tasks — such as cutting open the roofs of buildings — they almost always face interruptions, Karns said.

"Inevitably, they would get a call and have to stop and take a patient to the hospital," he said. "There's no continuity or flow to the training."

Climbing onto a roof and cutting holes is one of the most critical but dangerous operations firefighters perform. A roof opening allows smoke and heat to pour out, increasing visibility and lowering temperatures inside a building. But roofs can also collapse, Karns said.

In order to carry out advanced training, the department would need crews to work overtime so there were enough people on duty to handle calls while another group is training, Karns said.

The Medford Fire Department and Jackson County Fire Districts Nos. 3 and 5 carried out joint training last year, but Ashland firefighter/paramedics were not able to attend, Karns said.

Since Feb. 1, City Administrator Martha Bennett authorized the fire department to pay six hours of overtime per shift per month in order to bring back off-duty firefighter/paramedics for training, Karns said.

Each six-hour block allows two firefighter/paramedics to be on duty for an extra three hours, he said.

The department is also paying some extra overtime for two weeks this month to familiarize two new hires with department procedures. One person is replacing a captain who left last year, and the other replaces a battalion chief who recently retired, Karns said.

He said fully meeting the firefighter training standards would cost about $24,000 to $30,000 in extra overtime pay per year.

In tight budget times, Karns said he doesn't know whether he can get that added funding.

He is looking for creative ways to boost training time. For example, each firefighter shift has between seven to nine people on duty, creating some wiggle room for training.

"On days when we have nine, I can take a couple of people out of service for training," Karns said.

As part of their regular duties, firefighters go out in the community to inspect buildings for fire hazards. When new firefighters go along, Karns said he will count that as training for them.

To read the full Ashland Fire & Rescue 2010 annual report, visit www.dailytidings.com/AFR2010report.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.