Arizona firefighters part of an elite, highly-trained group - FOX 13 News

Arizona firefighters part of an elite, highly-trained group

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ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) -

The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona may be discussed by generations of fire science students.

"Actually, our curriculum is based on several tragedies," Pinellas Park Assistant Fire Chief Steve McCarthy says. "The Forest Service is very good at researching these situations and going back and trying to make sure that everything that they teach and everything they do in deployment is safe."

McCarthy helps teach wildland fire tactics in Pinellas County, and suspects people think firefighting has gotten safer.

"It's not getting safer," he said, "It's just that we're better educated, better trained."

All 19 men who perished Sunday belonged to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit of the Prescott, Arizona fire department. Prescott is a town of about 40,000, so McCarthy suspects the mass loss will hit especially hard.

One member of the crew was moving a vehicle and survived. He also has the chief's sympathy.

"Somebody's got to live with that for the rest of their life, yeah, one guy," McCarthy said.

The fire trainer agreed with St. Petersburg firefighter Joe Grasso, who has been certified to fight Western wild land fires in the past. He noted all of the victims had deployed their "fire shelters," which Grasso claims gave them less than a 50 percent chance for survival. He displayed a fire shelter, which creates a heat-resistant cocoon around a human body.

"If you have to deploy this it's -- you're in dire need," Grasso explained, adding " If flames directly touch this...it'll just incinerate."

As a structural firefighter, Grasso has heavy bunker gear, a heavy helmet and air tanks. As a brush firefighter, his helmet is more like a construction worker's, and his clothing is lightweight and fire-resistant. But he says all that is not going to help you if you're overrun by fire.

"All you've got is your fire shelter and as fast as your legs can carry you," he said.

Both men said Hotshot crews are highly-respected by other firefighters.

"They're a very elite group," McCarthy said. "They have their own vehicles that they ride in, they train together, and they're young," because they hike into wild land fires carrying all of their gear.

"I would compare them to any specialty group or specialty team from SWAT to Army Rangers, anything along that line, highly-trained individuals," Grasso said.

There are 110 Hotshot crews in the United States. At last report, 18 of them were attacking the same fire that claimed the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

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