Training Academy

When it comes to learning how to fight a fire, there's nothing like the real thing. So when the Baltimore County Fire Department learned that the Ramada Inn in Woodlawn, MD, was slated for demolition, thoughts turned to using the 234-room hotel as a...


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When it comes to learning how to fight a fire, there's nothing like the real thing. So when the Baltimore County Fire Department learned that the Ramada Inn in Woodlawn, MD, was slated for demolition, thoughts turned to using the 234-room hotel as a high-rise firefighting laboratory.

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Photo by Trevor T. Kilgore/Baltimore County Fire Department
Firefighters climb to an upper floor via Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company Truck 313.

Over a three-day weekend last year, firefighters from the Baltimore metropolitan area fought dozens of fires in the vacant nine-story structure. Fire departments from Howard and Anne Arundel counties along with Baltimore City participated in the joint venture.

Baltimore County surrounds the City of Baltimore. The fire department serves 700,000 residents over 610 square miles with 1,000 career firefighters staffing 26 stations. Some 3,000 volunteers operate from another 33 stations. They respond to an average of 60,000 fire and 64,000 emergency medical calls annually.

High-rise fires are not a regular occurrence, so instructors felt this was a unique opportunity to see how members would meet the challenge. Lessons learned from the venture were plentiful, as most participants counted physical stress, logistical coordination and teamwork among their primary insights.

The 300-foot-by-80-foot building offered instructors a myriad of training opportunities. Thoughts ranged from conducting collapse training drills to bringing in helicopters for rooftop rescues and large-scale disaster training. But officials took a step back and decided to key specifically on high-rise operations.

"We wanted to focus on the basics of stretching lines, equipment, incident command and search," said Battalion Chief Mark Hubbard.

The exercise was made possible by the demolition contractor, who allowed use of the property. The 20-year-old building had a ballroom, restaurant and indoor pool, but the drill was confined to rooms and hallways on upper floors. Standpipes were available for use but the structure's sprinkler system and utilities had been severed.

To ensure a safe training exercise, instructors referred to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403 Live Fire Training criteria. Each component of the drill was reviewed with possible emergencies anticipated. The following safety measures were followed:

  • Of the four stairwells on site, the two farthest from the fire room were used by advancing crews. The closer ones were held in reserve for emergency use and for instructors to shuttle between floors.
  • Floors, walls and stairwells were painted at the lowest level in fluorescent orange and green paint to direct evacuees toward Side 2 or Side 3 and exits.
  • Positive-pressure ventilation was set up both for training ventilation and prompt emergency removal of smoke.
  • Pallets and straw were selected as the burning material, with several pre-burns conducted the night before the session.
  • The sprinkler system was reactivated and a five-inch supply line was run to an upper floor for added safety.
  • Three Rapid Intervention Teams, made up of instructors, staged below the fire floor, ready to respond if needed. A medical team and advanced life support (ALS) base also staged nearby.

With precautions taken, companies toured the building in preparation. Briefings on communications, incident command and logistics were conducted. Companies were advised to review their high-rise operational plans and to check equipment, including personal alerting devices and hose packs. Units left the site and awaited dispatch.

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Photo by Trevor T. Kilgore/Baltimore County Fire Department
Interior command was set up two floors below the burn floor.

Instructors followed a simple rule after setting fire to a room: "If they didn't get water on the fire within 20 minutes, we set another room ablaze," said Baltimore County Lieutenant Robert Murray, who was safety officer for the project.

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