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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Marine Corps Bases Japan Fire Department presented certificates to a ground-breaking group of Master Labor Contract firefighters during a ceremony Friday at Fire Station 1.

A total of 14 MLC firefighters were recently certified as Department of Defense Hazardous Material Technicians, a first for all MLC firefighters in the Pacific region, according to Mark Sileikis, assistant fire chief for fire prevention and education.

About 10 years ago, DOD went to a certification process recognized worldwide in the firefighting community — the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress, he said. It was then made mandatory for all active-duty and civilian DOD firefighters to hold certain qualifications for various job levels.

That standard doesn’t apply to local nationals, according to Sileikis, because of the language barrier.

To work around the barrier and train the MLC firefighters, Sileikis said the fire department here became a satellite facility of Texas A&M, which provided all the teaching and testing materials. The department also hired a full-time translator to help convert the training materials from English to Japanese.

“It was a hard time because of the language barrier because some terms just can’t be translated,” said Assistant Fire Chief Scott Minakami, who was in charge of the group’s training.

The first to be trained were firefighters who are fluent in English, said Minakami. This minimized the need for translating the materials so the students could understand.

The group was trained in the three hazardous material areas of awareness, operations and technician, Minakami said.

The training included five major tests and a practical exam.

“Studying for the tests was a challenge,” said Hiroshi Kiyan. “It was a full load of study material.”

According to one firefighter, while difficult, the training has built confidence.

“I’m very proud of [receiving the certification],” said Hiroshi Yagi, one of the 14 firefighters. “We’ve gained a lot of confidence in doing our job.”

Firefighter Satoshi Arakaki said with the changes in the world, firemen need to know more than in the past.

“Being a fireman is not only putting out fires, but also HazMat and [Emergency Medical Services],” Arakaki said. “People want and need other services; it’s a necessity.”

Arakaki said in previous situations with hazardous materials, he and his fellow firefighters would contain the scene and wait possibly hours for a HazMat team to show up. Now, he said, they can handle scenes by themselves.

Minakami said the 14 who have been trained will now act as instructors for other MLC firefighters by helping to bridge the language gap. They will help translate the materials for the MLC firefighters who aren’t fluent in English.

Sileikis said the goal is to hold a few classes a year and keep the program running. He said when the Americans in the department leave and the new ones come in, the program should continue running smoothly with the MLC firefighters leading the way.

— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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