Local News

Firefighter Graduates Told Never Lose Heart

(Valparaiso, IN) - 12 firefighters from seven departments in the region have graduated from the District 1 Fire Academy in Valparaiso.


Serving people even if they need a shoulder to cry on was the main message they took home from the Friday ceremony at the Multi Agency Academic Cooperative (MAAC) training facility in Valparaiso.  “Don’t forget the compassion,” said La Porte Fire Chief Andy Synder during his address to the graduates and their many family members in attendance.  Snyder also spoke of courage, professionalism and dedication as traits firefighters held to a higher standard by society should practice.  He said compassion, though, is most important even though it can be misinterpreted as weakness.


Snyder said the endings are not always happy and firefighters are the ones when there’s nobody else to turn to when people are frantic and needing help.  He told the graduates never forget that a display of care or sympathy for the sufferings and misfortunates of others “is at the core of what we do.”  “Our every day is the people who we serve’s worst day.  You can use that as an opportunity for being a big impact on their life,” Snyder said.


The graduates were James and Matthew Augustyn and Nicholas Cercone both from the Whiting Fire Department; Clara Ditchcreek of the Hobart Fire Department; Grant Hunsley and Patrick Nickos both of the Portage Fire Department; Lecil Martin of the New Chicago Fire Department; Zachary Kaminski of the Crown Point Fire Department; Christopher Gaines of the Michigan City Fire Department and Sam Doig, Maxwell Fisher and Jacob Kazmierczak all from the La Porte Fire Department.


They completed an 11-week course based on an Indiana State Fire Marshal Office curriculum on the grounds containing six training facilities and an administrative building that also has classrooms. 


Not everyone was brand new to the emergency services profession.  Hunsley, for example, received his certification to become a firefighter in Portage after 12-years with the La Porte County Emergency Service.  “For him to start over is nothing short of special,” said Christopher Crail, a firefighter/paramedic with the Portage Fire Department.


He’s also a lead instructor at the facility established in 2016 by Stewart McMillan as a legacy to his late father, Clyde, a former firefighter in Gary.  McMillan, whose history includes stints with the Union Township and Washington Township fire departments in Porter County, is chief of the MAAC facility.


Previously, Crail said the academy was held at various fire departments in the region and training sites, depending on availability, sometimes changed daily.  Having one location for training simplifies things in areas like scheduling and commuting for participants.  “Wherever the facilities were available we would go there to train.  It’s a lot easier just being able to come here at one facility,” Crail said.


The facility, open year-round, is also used for emergency medical and police officer training, said Celina Weatherwax, president of the McMillan Family Foundation.  “We’ve trained hundreds of first responders from northwest Indiana and beyond,” she said.   The close to 20-acre campus featuring things like areas to work simulated fires and a K9 dog park is operated strictly on funds from the foundation and other donations.  “Everything is here. The training, the tools, the props. The different consumables they require as part of their training are provided here,” Weatherwax said.


Departments are also welcome to bring in their own trucks and other equipment for training.  Weatherwax said the facility does not have a shooting range but one could be provided, at some point, if sufficient funding becomes available.  Training is provided at no cost to the departments.  “People in the community donate to us.  We also have support from various private sector partners.  Lots of folks are very generous,” she said.

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