Wheeler Cowperthwaite

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March 31, 2013
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Storey County battalion chief candidates battle sandbox fires

It was all metaphorical smoke and nonexistent mirrors at the Storey County Fire Department on Friday as two battalion chief candidates went through four tests.

Invisible wind pushed hidden smoke in front of the fire, contained to a wooden sandbox filled with miniature fire trucks, hills, planes and automobiles, but no trains. Behind the mock smoke was a mock fire that threatened to engulf two houses, which it did in the testing scenario. The battalion chief candidates’ day did not start with a wildland fire above the Mark Twain estates. Instead, it started with pass-downs, mere distractions.

The tests began getting interesting as mock human resources problems cropped up. A pretend captain was neglecting his duties and a pretend female firefighter, whom he was dating, was doing the same.

This day-in-the-life experience would only get worse for the two candidates, whom the Appeal isn’t naming as part of a confidentiality agreement with the Fire Department. The tone came out for a structure fire on Virginia City’s main street, above the elementary school.

“We’re trying to see if they go off the cuff,” Fire Chief Gary Hames said of the candidates.

With each scenario, there are correct avenues and wrong ones.

“We want them to go down the path but not lead them,” he said.

The wildland fire, its cause unknown, began. By the time units arrived on the scene, it was 10-15 acres.

“Their day went to hell in a hand basket,” Hames said of the candidates.

There are more than 100 ways to fight a wildfire. Tactics and strategy abound. That was not much of a challenge for the two applicants, each with more than a decade of experience.

“Everything falls on your shoulders” as the incident commander, the person in charge of the managing entire fire, Hames said. “The buck stops with you.”

Hames means that literally; budgeting decisions are part of the battalion chief’s purview. When a captain requests air tankers to drop retardant on an encroaching fire, it’s the chief’s job to sign off on the $5,000-per-drop cost.

“It’s really interesting to remember back,” Hames said. He and his fellow test-givers remembered when they, too, had been making those decisions for the first time, taking the budgeting authority and its consequences.

The two candidates, neither of whom currently works for the Fire Department, were culled from a pool of five. The hiring process began two months ago, and interviews remain. The goal is to have the new battalion chief in and somewhat settled before May 1.

With the fire roaring, the applicants were ushered off to their last test: a news conference. There, they were interviewed about the fire, cajoled for information and asked for conjecture.

Editor’s note: Wheeler Cowperthwaite was a member of the three-person media contingent that facilitated and helped write media questions for the fourth section of the test.

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The Nevada Appeal Updated Mar 31, 2013 12:56AM Published Apr 4, 2013 01:30AM Copyright 2013 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.