New York Firefighters Train in Burn Building

Milton, NY -- Finding five golf balls hidden like Easter eggs in an empty six-room building within five minutes doesn't sound like too hard of a job.

But start a fire in the basement of that building and fill it with smoke so thick and black it seems more solid than the cinderblock walls. Then, find the golf balls on your hands and knees wearing a breathing mask, firefighting coat and heavy gloves.

"When you touch the golf balls on a concrete floor, they go all over the place," said Saratoga Springs Fire Capt. Pete Shaw. "It works on your dexterity."

The golf ball drill was just one of the practice scenarios Saratoga Springs city firefighters went through Thursday morning at the Saratoga County Fire Training Center in Milton. It's located across a parking lot from the county's animal shelter and near the jail.

Shifts of firefighters have been coming to the center all week, working on ways to quickly rescue a firefighter trapped in a burning building. The rapid intervention teams, called RIT, are similar to the FAST teams many volunteer departments already have standing by at any working structure fire.

While the center has other equipment like a pit and mock tractor-trailer with propane, Thursday's training centered on the burn building. Basically, it's a fireproof, concrete version of an average single-family home. It's got two bedrooms upstairs, two rooms on the first floor and a two-room basement.

But this basement is insulated to take temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. The average house fire can hit 1,500 degrees.

Then, there is the smoke. Firefighter Joe Dolan said the phrase "can't see your hand in front of your face" doesn't begin to describe it.

"All the walls just disappear," he said.

Dolan said firefighters train on individual skills at the station in Saratoga Springs. They work with ladders or their cherry picker. They might use ropes and pulleys to get a dummy out of the old coal bin at the Lake Avenue station.

For the first drill Thursday, firefighters had to rescue a 220-pound dummy. Once inside, Shaw told the men they couldn't bring the dummy out the front door.

"We threw them a curve right away," he said.

Afterward, he critiqued the rescue with the firefighters. They didn't communicate. They didn't survey the building. They didn't bring along the extra rope bag.

"If these guys did some of these same things during a fire, I wouldn't say anything. But here we nitpick," Shaw said.

The dummy's day got tougher. He started getting stuck closer to the fire.

Firefighters threw a couch on the fire, which bumped the temperature closer to three digits. The gray, somewhat translucent smoke from hay bales was replaced by deep black, boiling smoke.

"With that Phila Street fire, this is what we had when we got there," Dolan said. "This is just with one couch."

In that environment, firefighters depend on technology to find a lost comrade. If one of them doesn't move for 30 seconds, a loud whistling sound breaks out.

Thermal imaging cameras, which read heat, are another tool. Capt. Robert Williams said even the dummy will show up a different shade on the black-and-white screen. If someone has touched a wall, the handprint is visible.

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