It's no secret that the economy is in a slump. I am sure this is not a surprise to any fire department in the United States. Furthermore, I predict that any positive changes in the economy that may come almost certainly will be felt slowly by those of us on the front line of community services...
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Then the first lesson — preventing fires from starting. The students are given an hour-long presentation on major fires in similar businesses so they get an understanding of where codes come from and why compliance is so important. For example, the staffs of local hotels learned about the deadly MGM Grand and Winecoff hotel fires, how codes came into play and hotel staff reactions to the fires. This is an essential step prior to teaching basic fire codes and prevention so that those in the class can fully understand through real-world consequences the importance of compliance, the effectiveness of prevention, and the need for preparedness and training. Photos of code violations found during inspections in their businesses are shown to offer a dramatic demonstration of how a similar disaster could occur in their buildings and what needs to be done to make necessary corrections.
After the classroom presentation on codes, the students are taken through the most important part of the training — practical exercises. As firefighters, we learn our trade and develop our ability to stay calm and handle emergencies through hands-on training as we develop the confidence and skills required to bring incidents to a successful conclusion. Should a fire or other emergency occur on one of their properties, the environment they are trying to control, survive and escape is the very same we are rushing into; thus, we train them just as we train ourselves. The next lesson is how to properly react and respond to a fire in its incipient stage. Emphasis is placed on activating the fire alarm and starting the evacuation before trying to handle a fire of any size (lessons from MGM Grand and Winecoff). Using a propane training prop, each student has the opportunity to develop confidence and skills in using a fire extinguisher to suppress a live fire.
The third lesson involves training students to survive and save themselves and their patrons. Using the department's safety education house, visibility is significantly reduced by using training/theatrical smoke and all alarms and any other distracting noises are activated. Two students recruited from the middle school's drama club wait inside with an infant CPR mannequin, ready to play the part of panicked and disorientated patrons in need of help. Staff and managers enter the dense smoke in teams of two or three and must, as a team, negotiate their way from one end of the safety house to the other while controlling the panicked patrons and locating the missing infant.
For the students, this program has been a hit. They fully appreciate the practical exercises that bring to their attention how the anxiety, confusion and stress of a real fire or emergency would fully challenge their ability to handle it, as well as what their personal limits may be and the confidence to operate within the boundaries of their strengths, weaknesses and limitations. It has also generated honest discussions between managers and staff on the importance of fire drills, preventive activities and any unrealistic emergency plans that must be changed.
For the fire department, it has also been a success, although the level of success has yet to be challenged by any emergency response to one of these locations. We are, however, confident the first-arriving fire units would be met with a situation more safe and manageable and with a trained staff that are allies and resources, not a hindrance.
As a fire service, we need to continue to advocate for, and fight for, the restoration of resources that let us do our job safely and efficiently. In the meantime, we still have the responsibility to those we serve to provide the best service we can. Look at your community — can you provide the expected services? If the answer is no, then perhaps a target hazard program is what you need.
DANIEL BYRNE is a firefighter/paramedic for the Burton, SC, Fire District. He holds associate's and bachelor's degrees in fire science. A 22-year veteran of the emergency services, Byrne is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.