DAY 46 - CONTROLLED BURNS

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

We are into Week 11 now – just 13 training days away from graduation!
 
We continue to adhere to a fairly consistent schedule of morning lectures followed by a brief lunch for recruits and then afternoon practical sessions. By the way, I have no idea when – or if – the instructors eat. These guys have been truly self-sacrificing in order to ensure the training is delivered for us. They use every available minute of their extended work day to arrange “the next evolution” for us and to take care of the monumental list of logistical details that go into making the classroom and practical exercises safe, educational, and realistic.
 
This morning I presented a lesson on the Department’s Strategic Plan and my personal insights on “where we’ve been” as a department, “where we’re going,” and the transformation of our operations and services that will lead us to that future. It was a long session (sorry fella’s!), but I wanted my classmates to have some important information that the rest of the department had received during the last couple of years.
 
Mr. Vrona also covered several chapters from the textbook on Pre-fire Planning and Report Writing. Pre-Fire Planning involves looking at a property before an emergency occurs there so we have a “game plan” already in mind when we’re responding to that property. The plan is developed after a visit to the property for a detailed tour and inspection of the buildings, access roads, and surrounding topography. During the inspection, we identify specific hazards of the building or contained in the building (such as stored hazardous materials or void spaces where a fire could be concealed and grow undetected), access issues, and fire detection and suppression systems. We wrapped up our Pre-Fire Planning lesson by conducting an actual inspection of the building our training classroom is located in and assembling a diagram of the building, it’s special features, and the surrounding areas. 
 
The afternoon session today consisted of live fire training in the Class-A burn building at the Training Facility. This building is a very unique and valuable for firefighter training. Most modern burn buildings use natural gas or propane as fuel for training fires. Those gas-fired buildings are very safe (you can instantly shut off the gas and extinguish the fire), and they burn with very little smoke. It’s a very safe and “clean” way to teach fire attack tactics. The older style “Class A” building we have at Saint Paul Fire uses ordinary combustible materials to fuel our training fires: wood, cardboard, cloth, straw, and other natural fuels. The fires created with these fuels produce much more smoke, cannot be put out with a push of the button, and require “overhaul” (breaking up the ashes and debris to ensure the fire is completely extinguished). The result is a more realistic fire situation – one that could typically be found in the structure fires we fight. The fires in the Class A burn building are also messier to clean up and less safe than in gas-fired simulators. 
 
Our class was broken into 5 groups of 4 recruits each (one group of five – there’s 21 of us in the academy). Each group was to operate as a “fire company” – a four-person firefighting team. Each group was assigned one of the fireground functions typically conducted on the scene of a structure fire:
 
·      Attack Team: they arrive on scene, connect a water supply from a hydrant to the fire engine, “stretch” attack lines (hoses) into the building, find the fire, and put it out. They also search for fire victims (occupants who may still be inside the burning building) and help ventilate (clear the smoke from the building) when the fire is out.
 
·      The Back-up Team is a redundant Attack Team. They follow the Attack Team and take over fire extinguishment in the event that: an injury, equipment malfunction or water supply problem occurs to the Attack Team; the Attack Team finds a fire victim and stops the fire attack to bring the victim outside; or the Attack Team needs help bringing a large fire under control. The Back-up Team also searches while they advance towards the fire. The Back-up Team typically uses a separate water supply and pulls hose from a different fire engine than the Attack Team to ensure that a water supply or mechanical problem affecting one team does not affect both teams.
 
·      Ventilation Team: This group provides forcible entry assistance to the Attack Team; places ladders to the roof for ventilation and to upstairs windows to provide egress routes to crews working inside the building; ventilates the roof or windows by making ventilation openings and placing large vans that move air into or out of the building; shuts down gas and electric utilities to the structure; and searches for victims. While searching inside the building, this team does not typically operate with a fire hose, so they are working without the safety of a water supply, and without the orientation that a hose line provides. i.e., they cannot follow the hose line out if they get disoriented while searching.
 
·      Search and Rescue Team: This group advances into the building to search for occupants. This team also works without a hose line for protection or orientation.
 
·      The Safety/Light-off Team: This team assists the instructor in lighting the training fires and cleaning up afterwards. They operate with a charged hose line and provide an extra measure of safety in case the Attack Team or Back-up Team runs into trouble. They also get to sit inside the building and watch the fire grow, so they get a REALLY good chance to see fire behavior, air circulation around a fire, and smoke layering.   This team is the only group that would NOT be on the scene of a real fire, of course. 
 
We ran through 4 scenarios during the afternoon session today. Our 4-man teams rotated through the various functions, and the group I was with served as the Back-up Team, Search and Rescue, Ventilation, and Safety/Light-Off. 
 
The scenarios were mentally and physically challenging, and I was worn out by the end of the day. Not sore, really, just completely drained. Wearing 50 pounds of extra clothing and gear around all afternoon, being out in the cold air, and pulling hose up, down, and all around (we reload the hose onto the trucks between every evolution) must have been what did it, because I “crashed” on the couch when I got home and woke up in time to go to bed during the 10:00 news!
 
We suffered our first major injuries today during the evolution. 2 of my classmates were hurt in separate evolutions – one with a knee injury, and one with an arm injury. One ended up in the hospital for evaluation. I stopped by the hospital on the way home after class, and found half the recruit class there already, plus most of my command staff as well! All were concerned for my injured classmate, Brian, and all were trying to cheer him up and encourage him. Brian was understandably bummed out from being hurt at this late stage of the game, and concerned about missing training and fearful of not being able to “hit the streets” on time after graduation! There are no words that adequately console someone so disappointed and worried. We did our best, however, through jokes, stories, and a shot or two of morphine.
 
At one point during the hospital visit I looked around at the faces of the men gathered there around Brian. Young, tough, soot-stained faces….men of ability and potential…. Inexperienced perhaps, but young and eager and willing for perfection…..already showing the a hint of the mettle it takes to be a veteran….committed to each other and a profession of service….part of something bigger than themselves. It was a special moment for me – a glimpse into our department’s past, present, and future....and the future looked bright, in spite of the somber occasion for the gathering.
 
It was touching to see some of the biggest, strongest guys in my class standing around holding flowers, teddy bears, and boxes of candy – all brought for Brian to cheer him up and to let him know he wasn’t “alone.” Self-conscious and uncertain of exactly WHAT to say or how to say it – but knowing that just being there for a brother and a friend was important to him….and to us. I love the Fire Department because of that close knit camaraderie - pulling together to help each other out during the rough times. 
 
After ensuring that Brian was in good hands, I went home and crashed hard on the couch.
 
Tim
 
 

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