Waterville firefighter Ryan Johnston embraces the fact that those in his profession cannot work remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryan Johnston, top, of the Waterville Fire Department, leads a training exercise on roof ventilation Monday at the Oakland Fire Department. Johnston discussed techniques in ventilating a roof in case of fire. Later to demonstrate a vent saw, he cut a hole in the roof of a training model in the parking lot. Firefighters from Smithfield, Sidney and Oakland participated in the training. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Johnston, 48, founded MAINE-IAC Training a half-dozen years ago after local fire departments learned of his unique extrication class. Now, more than ever, the region’s often short-staffed departments look to get the most out of whom they’ve got, and that’s where Johnston’s business comes in.

“One of the things to remember during COVID is that the fires don’t stop, emergencies don’t stop,” Johnston said. “We’ve got to keep our firefighter skills as sharp as we can, so we do it as safely as possible.”

In recent months, MAINE-IAC Training reached a countrywide audience. In November, Johnston published an article in popular outlet Firefighternation.com about firefighting while short staffed. In his article, Johnston wrote about the importance of training with ladder trucks in real-world settings with modern tactics.

He’s done three podcast interviews since penning his story and has three more lined up.

In addition to his full-time position with Waterville that is a 24 hours on, 48 hours off shift, Johnston holds the rank of lieutenant at Oakland and does per diem shifts with Clinton.

“It’s a great asset and advantage to have someone that does training as a business and is that dedicated to the fire service,” Oakland Fire Chief David Coughlin said. “Him being a member of our department, it does turn into being an asset for us to pull from.”

On Monday night, Johnston met a group of future firefighters at the Oakland Fire Department to conduct a class on roof operations and ventilation. Three students from Sidney, three from Oakland and one from Smithfield attended the training with Johnston.

Exhausting heat and gases is best done through the roof of a building, and the class showed students different types of cuts to conduct roof operations and ventilation. MAINE-IAC offers approximately 15 different firefighting classes in topics like vent, enter, search (VES), forcible entry and ladder company operations.

MAINE-IAC Training also has an extrication course, lecture series, and MAINE-IAC Training instructors often appear on podcasts or video series that reach across the country.

“Ryan has been a great asset to the Waterville Fire Department and brings with him a great passion for helping others,” Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler said. “WFD is considered a regional asset, and we respond to surrounding communities for collapse, water rescue and rope rescue situations when called upon.

“Unfortunately, for a small department, we see our fair share of technical rescue scenarios, most of which do not make the newspaper, and Ryan certainly has facilitated new training ideas within our department we otherwise would not have had.”

GETTING TRAINING OFF THE GROUND

Johnston, who was born and raised in Clinton, began his career at the Clinton Fire Department as a volunteer in 1991, the year after he graduated from Lawrence Senior High School.

A graduate of Southern Maine Community College’s fire science program, Johnston began his full-time career in Bangor in 1997. He worked there for nearly 18 years before becoming a full-time police officer in Fairfield after working part-time as a police officer in Oakland and Fairfield. The full-time police officer job lasted five months, and Johnston left for the Waterville Fire Department once he saw a job posted.

Ryan Johnston of the Waterville Fire Department carries a vent saw toward a ladder as he leads a training exercise on roof ventilation Monday at the Oakland Fire Department. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The plan was to eventually work up to a position at the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal, but the police work wasn’t for him.

“It just wasn’t for me,” Johnston said. “I hated it. Absolutely hated it. I saw Waterville was hiring, so I applied over there.”

Perhaps the move away from police work was a blessing in disguise. Johnston, who instructed local departments while in Bangor, started MAINE-IAC Training in 2014. It took off when he devoted more time to the business. Johnston also quickly became a rescue technician with the Waterville Fire Department.

Johnston started the business after conducting an extrication class through Central Maine Fire Attack School. After a positive response from the 21 students there, MAINE-IAC Training was born.

His extrication classes stray from the normal in how realistic they are.

“We would crush the cars up to the point where they’re unrecognizable, and then we’d put dummies in the car and make people cut apart the car to get the dummies out,” Johnston said.

Extrication classes ballooned, with up to 50 people enrolling. When departments from around the region came calling, Johnston knew it was time to get MAINE-IAC Training going.

“I started realizing that there was a need not just for the extrication classes I was doing, but everything,” Johnston said. “So, I started offering myself up to these other departments and it just flourished and has grown tremendously since then.”

Esler, the Waterville chief, remembered a recent extrication training where Johnston put a car upside down in a dumpster to limit accessibility and simulate patients in a vehicle.

“This out of the box idea proved to be a valuable training scenario for our department given the frequency of car accidents we respond to,” Esler said.

MAINE-IAC Training conducts classes with entire departments and with groups of students from different departments. Johnston is the company’s founder and sole employee, but often utilizes colleagues from around the region to assist with certain classes. Count Skowhegan Cpt. Jason Frost, Winslow Cpt. Waylon Capp, Fairfield firefighter Travis Leary and Waterville firefighter Mike Brochu among the dozen or so self-contracting instructors affiliated with MAINE-IAC. The cadre of instructors work at departments across Maine and in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Capp helps Johnston with aerial operation and extrication classes. They don’t have a regular schedule to teach together, but they work together for a handful of classes each year.

Ryan Johnston of the Waterville Fire Department leads a training exercise about roof ventilation Monday at the Oakland Fire Department. Later he demonstrated how to use a vent saw by cutting a hole in the roof of a training model in the parking lot. Firefighters from Smithfield, Sidney and Oakland participated in the training. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Ryan is very knowledgeable in the fire service on what it used to be and where it’s going, especially with the shorthanded stuff that he does, with the problems we have with finding people who want to be firefighters,” Capp said. “Ryan is always looking for new techniques and studies ways to fight fires and brings that forth. I enjoy it.”

Frost specializes in ladders and aerial search and “whatever else (Johnston) needs me to.”

Frost, who met Johnston at one of his MAINE-IAC Training sessions, is the head of training for Skowhegan and often comes back with new ideas. Having someone teach classes around the region leads to simplified mutual aid calls.

“It gives everybody the same type of training. We work closely with everyone around us because we have to with a lack of manpower these days,” Frost said. “It gives us more of a sense of calm when you pull up on scene.”

TRAINING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Some MAINE-IAC Training classes have been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic, but essential skills and training cannot be ignored.

Masks are worn and physical distancing is followed as much as possible. There are some classes, such as extrication, where the distancing isn’t quite possible.

“We’re all being as safe as possible,” Johnston said, “but still trying to get the essential trainings in while making sure we are keeping everybody safe.”

MAINE-IAC Training is booked through May, with Johnston contracted by local departments for sessions that usually last between two and three days. Johnston is scheduled to teach classes in Greenville, Boothbay Harbor and Livermore Falls in the near future. There’s a class scheduled in Ohio this summer.

MAINE-IAC Training averages two or three trainings a month. The pandemic hasn’t changed that load too much. Every class that is hands-on can be done in lecture form, but physically doing the training is more important. Some classes are in lecture form in the winter and hope to do the hands-on training in anticipation of a more COVID-safe spring.

Ryan Johnston of the Waterville Fire Department leads a training exercise on roof ventilation Monday at the Oakland Fire Department. Johnston discussed techniques in ventilating a roof in case of fire. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“And that’s totally understandable,” Johnston said. “People want to keep their departments and their families safe, and I agree with that 100%. I wouldn’t complain at all if someone cancels due to COVID.”

Monday night’s “rookie program” at the Oakland Fire Department was not technically through MAINE-IAC Training, but Johnston is using MAINE-IAC’s equipment. Later this week, Waterville Fire Department is renting some of MAINE-IAC Training’s props for the Mid-Maine Technical Center’s firefighting course.

“It’s his own business and company, so most people are going to call him directly, but he has a good reputation around the departments in being a resource that can be called to do specialized training above and beyond a fire certification program,” said Coughlin, Oakland’s chief.

There are other companies like MAINE-IAC Training, including Tri-County Fire Training in Lewiston. The companies sometimes work together, such as during an aggressive search class in the Yarmouth area with the nearly $9,000 from the class donated to Farmington Fire Department after the 2019 fatal propane explosion.

Yes, there’s competition, but the goal of public safety shines through.

“Even though MAINE-IAC Training was represented, I was a part of their program,” Johnston said. “We actually went up there and put on a training program for Farmington Fire and presented them with the check for the donation.”

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