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VALPARAISO — The Multi Agency Academic Cooperative Foundation hosted an official groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday at the site of the new firefighter training academy.

The MAAC Fire Training Academy at 4203 Montdale Drive, will support more than 80 fire departments and more than 2,000 firefighters throughout Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Jasper and Newton counties, officials said.

“This is a true demonstration of teamwork and proactive collaboration,” said project lead Celina Weatherwax, of Weatherwax Strategies.

Portage Fire Chief Tom Fieffer said the new training center once completed will allow his firefighters and those from all five counties in Northwest Indiana a central location for training and meetings.

Firefighters presently conduct training within their own departments or go to a central but distant location, such as O’Hare International Airport.

“If we can do it here it’s less stressful and more time efficient,” Fieffer said.

Valparaiso Fire Chief Chad Dutz said the new training center will also add to more cooperation between all the area fire departments.

“Given the times we have to lean on each other...We can share resources and get quality training,” Dutz said.

Valparaiso Assistant Fire Chief Jon Daly agreed that the new center will bring about more camaraderie among area firefighters and build relationships.

“We need to rely on each other,” Daly said.

The first phase of the training center will include rehabbing an existing tool barn to house equipment, engines and to be used as an office, Weatherwax said.

That work should be completed by early November.

The second phase, which will be started in the spring, will include construction of a new building, which will be used for classroom training and to store indoor training equipment.

Future plans include the construction of a burn tower on the nearly 5-acre site which will also feature props like vehicles and a train car to provide training in different emergency scenarios, Weatherwax said.

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“We are committed to developing a state-of-the-art campus that will serve as a leading provider of safety, emergency preparedness and response training. Our dedication stems from our desire to ensure that we develop a valuable asset that truly benefits all of Northwest Indiana’s public safety community now and in the future,” Weatherwax said.

John M. Buchman III, who spoke prior to the groundbreaking ceremony, said the value of the training center can’t be overrated.

Buchman serves as branch chief for the Indiana Firefighter Training Section of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s about training and survival. It’s a dangerous job,” Buchman said.

State Fire Marshal James Greeson said the current Indiana fire training system began 11 years ago.

“During that time, the Northwest Indiana Training District has been a leader in the delivery of the fire and public safety training. District 1’s attitude of collaboration and the willingness of the professionals here to participate and partner with the state has enhanced training opportunities for firefighters and public safety stakeholders throughout Northwest Indiana,” Greeson said.

Greeson said the state will be partnering with MAAC.

“Over the next few weeks the fire marshal’s office will be giving more details,” Greeson said.

Buchman said the partnering will mean financial assistance but he declined to provide the amount at this time.

Weatherwax and other officials praised Stewart McMillan, who didn’t attend the groundbreaking, but who was instrumental in pushing forward the idea for the training center.

“His mission has always been about serving others,” Weatherwax said of McMillan.

Weatherwax said the McMillan family foundation made a philanthropic investment to the MAAC Foundation.

Stewart McMillan serves as chairman of Valparaiso-based Task Force Tips, which manufactures firefighting equipment.

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