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VALPARAISO — At the edge of Montdale Industrial Park there are a series of stacks of shipping containers that will transform public safety training in the Region.

In fact, it’s the only public-private partnership of its kind in the nation, according to Celina Weatherwax, director of development for the Multi Agency Academic Cooperative.

The new training complex, which serves police, fire and EMS departments, isn’t finished yet but is already in use.

Academy Director Ward Barnett stressed the importance of training for public safety professionals.

One of the containers is used to train firefighters about flashovers, when the firefighters’ lives are in peril. “Little fingers of fire” are a sign that a flashover might occur, and firefighters have just seconds to decide whether to escape or potentially be trapped.

Barnett, who has extensive firefighting experience in industrial as well as rural and municipal settings, said some departments can go a long time without fighting a fire. Most calls to fire departments are for medical assistance, like helping at the scene of traffic accidents.

That makes training all the more important for the 80 fire departments in Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Newton and Jasper counties that use the training center.

Gary firefighter Ron Smith, who is helping outfit the containers to make them more realistic, said firefighters used to burn down derelict homes for training, but now there are lots of permits to be obtained and safety considerations like nearby structures or weakened floors that create a hassle for firefighters.

Burns Harbor Fire Chief Bill Arney, one of the trainers, called the MAAC a "fireman’s playground" that improves training.

"We have every training prop that you could think of out there," he said, so trainers are able to make more efficient use of trainees’ time.

Before the new facility was built, trainers would borrow props from other departments to conduct training. Once the trainees showed sufficient prowess with a particular prop, the training was over even if there was plenty of time to do something new. Now with the props handy, the trainers can quickly change gears and provide more advanced training in the available time.

The facility is designed large enough that six departments can train at the same time without getting in each other’s way.

The shipping containers are used for training because the firefighters can spray water inside them without weakening the structure, the way a wood-framed structure could be affected.

An assortment of junk cars is used to help first responders learn skills like how to extricate accident victims trapped inside a vehicle.

Police officers are able to use the facility for training in a variety of scenarios, and the twin classrooms can handle up to 90 students for first aid and other training.

The MAAC concept began with a team talking about a training facility; it grew larger when Barnett joined in June 2016, and urged the team to look at the big picture and develop a larger, more complete complex, Weatherwax said.

The McMillan Family Foundation wanted to create the facility as a tribute to Task Force Tips founder Clyde McMillan, who designed a new fire nozzle on a napkin and launched the Valparaiso-based company that now sells firefighting apparatus worldwide.

It’s now up to the MAAC Foundation, which operates the training center, to raise money for operational costs.

A VIP ribbon cutting for the training facility is scheduled for today.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.