Darkness. Hot darkness. Smoke so thick I could not see our instructor, Bernie Vrona, who was 2 feet to my left. Suddenly, tongues of flame light up the smoky darkness 3 feet over my head....long, flowing tongues of flame. Rivers of liquid flame eagerly seeking a way towards more oxygen.....seeking more fuel....seeking any little chink in the protective clothing that I’m wearing in the searing heat. It is eerie.....and fascinating....and well, just really, really cool!
There are 10 of us huddled inside a giant steel box: 7 feet wide, 8 feet tall, and 20 feet long. There’s a fire burning on one end of the box, and my classmates and I – along with Fire Training Officer Jerry Deno and Instructor Vrona – are huddled on the floor watching the fascinating display of flames flowing above our heads. We’re inside the Fire Behavior Simulator. It is a training prop designed to demonstrate how a fire grows, spreads, and behaves inside the closed confines of a room. It is hot and smoky, and we watch the smoke above our heads light up with those long, flowing tongues of flame. It looks a little like lightning flashing inside a roiling black cloud, except that lighting is sharp and sudden and stark....the flames here are long and flowing and “liquid” looking.
The smoke above our heads is really unburned fuel – it contains vapors, gases, and solids that can ignite and burn if it gets hot enough and if there is enough oxygen to sustain combustion. The flowing rivers of flame are signs of an impending flashover – a deadly explosion of flames created when all the contents of a room flash to flame at about 1000 degrees. It was near that temperature at the ceiling, but we were huddled on the floor of the box about 2 feet below the fire, and about 6 feet below the rivers of flame. It was several hundred degrees down on the floor. It was hot, but we were relatively comfortable. We were learning to trust our gear, and learning the dangers of being in a burning confined space.
The Fire Behavior Simulator is one of the most unique training props at the Saint Paul Fire Training Facility. We spent less than an hour inside the simulator, but it was a great learning opportunity and an unforgettable experience. I have been in the simulator twice before, but I am fascinated each time I’m in it. The simulator was built by department members, and it’s used for both the Firefighter Recruit Academy and for our citizen academy. Trainees are dressed in full protective gear and SCBAs, and can spend almost an hour being “up close and personal” with the dancing rivers of flame!
Monday was “Day 5” of the academy. The day started, for me, at 4:00 AM reading and responding to email and studying the Firefighter textbook. Class began at 7:30 AM with “station duties” – daily routine cleaning chores done by all recruits in the academy, and by all Firefighters at fire stations throughout the city. Floors swept and vacuumed, toilets cleaned, trash dumped, tables disinfected, and kitchen area cleaned. 20 guys can do a lot of cleaning in 15 minutes, and that’s what we are allotted every morning before class lectures start at 7:45 AM.
Today’s morning classes covered department SOPs, radios and radio procedures, fire chemistry, and fire behavior. The afternoon practical sessions provided hands on practice for quickly donning our Personal Protective Equipment and SCBAs and the Fire Behavior Simulator. We must be able to completely don our PPE and SCBAs in less than 90 seconds. After several attempts, I was able to meet that goal.
The afternoon sessions ran until 4:00 PM, and we didn’t have time to complete our daily Physical Training hour. So, when I got home in the evening, my wife, Sue, and I went for a 5+ mile walk. I took some free weights along to work my upper body while we walked.
I finished the night with an hour of studying the Firefighter’s textbook. This Friday’s test covers more than 5 chapters in the book, so I need to do a lot of reading and studying before class and after hours.