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Protecting those who served: Tomah VA firefighters sharpen skills through drills

fire truck and crew
The Tomah VA Fire Department conducts a training exercise on the campus of the Tomah VA Medical Center. Realistic and immersive training evolutions are key to keeping firefighting skills sharp. (Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Tory Lugo)

Fire department! If anyone’s here, call out!

Fire department! If anyone’s here, call out!   

The loud, strong call—muffled slightly by the tight seal of a full-face, air-supplied respirator—continues to ring out between breaths. The piercing, eerily familiar din of a smoke alarm and the hiss of oxygen tanks are incessant. They meld with the shouts to play out an unnerving soundtrack. Clouds of thick, rolling white smoke rob the advantage of vision beyond four inches in any direction. Dizzying disorientation is but one wrong move away.  

Despite all this, no flames engulf Tomah VA Medical Center’s Building 4 on the sunny morning of March 24, 2023. The smoke that fills the one-story, white-paneled structure is nontoxic. This is an interior structural fire drill, one of many exercises conducted by Tomah Veterans Affairs firefighters to maintain the skills needed to save lives and protect the Medical Center.  

Carefully observing every move of the team in the building is Dennis Cameron, Fire Chief of the Tomah VA Fire Department. Chief Cameron, a firefighter of more than 24 years, said drills like this are valuable for firefighters and Veterans alike.  

“By running exercises like this, we make sure our firefighters stay proficient in the tasks involved with firefighting,” said Chief Cameron. “For Veterans, as well as our staff, having a well-drilled, onsite fire department means a safer campus with outstanding response times in case of emergencies. We’re providing a professional service to those who have served by staying ready to respond to emergencies as quickly and effectively as possible.”  

While exercises vary in their scope and requirements, Tomah VA Fire Department often conducts drills using tools and equipment that help simulate the experience of an actual emergency. Chief Cameron noted these tools help firefighters trust in their skills when real flames may lie behind a closed door. 

“To make drills as immersive as possible, we use lights to simulate the look of fire, a smoke machine to give us that thick smoke, and we sound the alarms that would be activated in an actual emergency,” said Chief Cameron. “Today we also used our actual firefighting equipment including our engines, handlines, and self-contained breathing apparatuses (for oxygen) to simulate going in and actually fighting the fire.”  

Tomah VA Medical Center’s 173-acre campus is home to buildings of many shapes, construction methods, and ages. To best protect this wide variety of structures and those inside them, Tomah VA firefighters constantly change the scenarios used in exercises.  

Chad Marti, a Tomah VA Fire Department Captain, said no two firegrounds are ever alike and everything is variable, underscoring the importance of frequent, quality drills. 

“The way firefighters learn to stay calm and collected during emergencies is by honing skills through many, many drills like this one,” said Captain Marti, who served as the incident commander for the exercise at Building 4. “Firefighters need to be able to perform in zero visibility environments. The ability to do that consistently is a perishable skill. When lives are in danger, our skills need to be second nature.”  

Captain Marti noted that challenging training means VA firefighters stand ready to respond to emergencies 24/7, every day of the year.  

“We’re proud to serve Veterans and are proud of being a highly-certified fire department,” said Captain Marti. “It’s an honor to protect those who’ve served our country as firefighters.”  

As smoke continued to billow out the windows of Building 4, the team inside safely emerged with the manikin representing the victim. The crew had already simulated the call to Tomah Area Ambulance, meaning medical assistance would be only minutes away from the burning building. Had an actual life been on the line, Tomah VA firefighters’ skill under pressure would have made all the difference. 

To learn more about Tomah VA Medical Center and the services available to Veterans, visit the medical center’s website and social media presence. 


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