Long before volunteer firefighter recruits run into burning buildings at the MAAC training academy in Valparaiso, Burns Harbor Fire Chief Bill Arney said the instructors try to “scare the dickens out of them.”
“We tell them how dangerous this job is. We want to put that in their heads because this is a inherently dangerous job. And we want them to know from day one we’re not going to take this lightly,” Arney said at a graduation ceremony Friday night at Wheeler High School.
The state-of-the-art Multi Agency Academic Cooperative firefighter academy's first round of recruits started out with 42 people — but only 29 men and women endured the six long months of training, giving up their nights and weekends and time with family and friends, at their own expense, to serve their communities.
“They come in as people off the streets … and our goal is to mold these people in firefighters. To do that, it takes a long five and a half, six months. And the majority of them are volunteers who are dedicating their time, time away from their families and their loved ones,” Arney said.
The MAAC training campus, which opened in September, sits on 4.5 acres in Valparaiso and features hazmat and propane fire training areas, a drill tower, various story structures, and a 7,200 square foot indoor training building.
There, recruits learned about fire safety and equipment in the classroom to become certified. Through hands-on training, the recruits scaled ladders, worked fire hoses and hydrants, and ran into burning structures on site during training.
The McMillan Family Foundation created the facility as a tribute to MAAC Fire Chief Stewart McMillan’s father, Clyde “Mac” McMillan, who designed a new fire nozzle on a napkin and launched the Valparaiso-based company that now sells firefighting apparatus worldwide.
This year marks Stewart McMillan’s 50th year as a firefighter. While addressing the class, he recalled the level of qualifications and training required a half-century ago.
“I had a pulse. I was big for my age,” McMillan said. “And I hung around the firehouse."
Back then, it didn’t take much to earn a badge and fire hat, he said.
“So why I mention this to you tonight? I’m awed by the commitment that you and your families have made to complete this class for the sole purpose to be able to help others in their time of need,” McMillan said. “I’m humbled by your accomplishment, by your sacrifice and I honestly do not believe I could have made it through the same class.”
Storm Wiseman, a graduate and now volunteer firefighter with Liberty Township, thanked the countless instructors who worked with Wiseman and her fellow recruits the last six months.
“We started back in August and let’s be honest, we didn’t know our right from our left,” Wiseman said. “But with this great group of instructors we had, they taught us how to crawl and how to walk.”
The graduates now work for various departments across Northwest Indiana, including Burns Harbor, Cedar Lake, Indiana Harbor, Kouts, Lake Station, Lakes of the Four Seasons, Liberty Township, Long Beach, Lowell, New Chicago, Union Township, Washington Township and Westville.
Shawn Cain, 24, a graduate with the Kouts Volunteer Fire Department, said his father was a volunteer firefighter for 26 years and his brother is a full-time paid firefighter.
“I can’t thank our instructors enough. Without them, I wouldn’t have the knowledge I have today. It’s always been my dream to be a firefighter.”
Stewart McMillian received a standing ovation when the 29 recruits were each surprised with a $1,000 check from the McMillan Family Foundation.
The gift was meant to honor the recruits for being “the very first class to ‘attack the MAAC’ — and beat it," he said. The Multi Agency Academy Cooperative Foundation was formed in 2016 when the McMillan Family Foundation partnered with the Indiana District 1 Firefighter Training Council to develop training opportunities in the area through classroom and hands-on techniques.