Flashover simulator is smoky survival lesson

By Alicia A. Caldwell | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 30, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- With a small torch, Scott Hardin lighted what he hoped would soon become one of the most dangerous fires a firefighter can face: a flashover or backdraft.

The metal trailer in which he lighted the blaze quickly became engulfed in flames while several Daytona Beach firefighters -- seated on wooden benches that line the back of the trailer -- watched and waited to see how the fire would react, grow and hopefully become a monster with the potential to kill them.

The firefighters only watched the blaze -- part of a training exercise -- because it was likely the only time they would see a flashover fire and live to tell about it.

"You don't survive a flashover," Daytona Beach fire Lt. Yavonne Reczek said. "These are the indications to get out before it happens."

Hardin, a firefighter instructor from Gaston College in North Carolina, was in Daytona Beach this week teaching the local rescuers to notice the signs of a flashover before it happens.

It took only about five minutes for the heat inside the portable training simulator to become so intense and the smoke so thick that anyone not wearing protective equipment had to be ushered out. As the nearly 30-minute exercise progressed, brown and white smoke billowed from every crevasse of the metal box that resembled a horse trailer.

Occasionally, Hardin swung a side door open to add oxygen to the fire, strengthening its intensity and the potential for a flashover, while fellow Gaston instructor Russ King explained what the trainees were witnessing.

"Think about 'Can I go in that room and make a rescue of a civilian?' " King said to one group shortly after the fire was ignited.

After the training session, the firefighters emerged from the smoky trailer drenched in sweat but excited about what they had seen.

"They say the only time you see flashovers is if you're burned or dead," firefighter Don Ruiter said.

Lt. Joe Cartwright, who has been a firefighter for nearly a decade, said before Tuesday he had only seen flashover fires on training videos.

"This is firsthand; it's a very unique simulator," Cartwright said, drinking water and wiping streams of sweat from his face.

Reczek said this week's training was meant to teach the firefighters to spot a flashover quickly and get away even faster.

The department paid about $4,000 for Hardin and King to drive the simulator to Daytona Beach and teach the training course for three days, Reczek said. She said department officials chose to use the simulator for safety reasons.

In the four years that Gaston College has used it, King said, there have been no deaths or injuries during training.A flashover was blamed for the deaths of two Osceola County firefighters last year during a different type of training exercise. The accident killed Dallas Begg and John Mickel while they were participating in a house fire simulation.

Alicia A. Caldwell can be reached at acaldwell@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7924.