Members of a rural fire agency followed the fire hose down a darkened hallway. Both firefighters had blackout masks on, so they could see nothing.
After crawling under a beam blocking a doorway, they weaved through multiple jail cells and around a shopping cart — always staying close to the ground, always following the hose.
The firefighters were practicing drills to brush up on their Rapid Intervention Crew skills. The crew consists of firefighters who go into burning buildings to rescue other firefighters who are trapped.
The training on Thursday at Lodi Fire Station 1 included multiple agencies from throughout northern San Joaquin County. The group training is part of a recent effort to have agencies train together — both to make sure everyone in the county has the same skills and to save money.
As budgets shrink and fire departments start shifting to minimal staffing, the districts rely more on mutual aid. The system allows a district that has a surplus of calls to ask for help from another district that is less busy.
"We see mutual aid increase on a daily basis, so we thought it would be prudent to make sure we are training together," Woodbridge Fire Chief Mike Kirkle said.
The idea for the group training approach started when the San Joaquin County Local Agency Formation Commission started evaluating all of the fire agencies in San Joaquin County about a year and a half ago.
As the leaders of each of the fire districts started talking more, they decided group training would save everyone in the county money. Plus, they said it will help when agencies respond to calls in other cities.
"We do this with the goal that, as we respond to mutual aid, we are all working from the same sheet of music," Kirkle said.
But group training sessions can be costly, so they had to find a system to make it work, Lodi Fire Department Battalion Chief Gene Stoddart said.
"Nobody has money for overtime for training, so we asked, 'How are we going to come together to train?'" he said.
To avoid agencies having to pay overtime for firefighters to attend the training, each district fills in for another for a couple of hours while they participate.
The training sessions are held every three months, and there have been three so far.
"It's real rewarding to see all the agencies in the north county coming together to train," Mokelumne Fire Mike Kirkle said.