Training Academy

April 1, 1996
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.
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.

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.

Tremendous heat was generated as fire took possession of rooms. Outside, firefighters watched as thick black smoke churned out of closed balcony doors. Because the hotel sits at a heavily traveled intersection, many motorists stopped, believing an actual fire was in progress.

It didn't take long for instructors to learn there was a serious need for the drill. One crew radioed that they were unable to reach the fire. Another became disoriented and sought refuge on an upper-floor balcony. Stairwells became clogged with firefighters, hoselines and equipment.

"It was a real wake-up call for many people," said Murray, adding that tenured firefighters found themselves taxed by a challenge they don't regularly encounter.

Communications frequencies became jammed as company officers called "on scene" and requested orders. "One thing we learned was that companies must stop talking on the radio for major incidents," said Murray. During the first 10 minutes of the operation, participants with important messages could not access the radio. "Companies need to report face-to-face with the commander to receive orders," said Murray.

There was also a discipline problem of "freelancing," as some companies not only completed their assignments but then moved on to others specifically selected for other teams. They failed to report back for reassignment, hence, said Murray, a "domino effect" of completed and incomplete tasks clouded the operation. "As time progressed, sectors reported back and things ran more smoothly," he said.

Photo by Trevor T. Kilgore/Baltimore County Fire Department A hallway during a burn evolution.
Photo by Trevor T. Kilgore/Baltimore County Fire Department Lieutenant Terry Elkins (in red T-shirt) briefs the news media during a post-evolution evaluation.

Chief officers also found the operation taxing. Still, it allowed them to handle a fire of a magnitude that many may never face in their careers. Murray found that commanders also needed observation. "It was easy to get overwhelmed. You had to keep a strong command presence to prevent from being swept away," he said.

Beyond the benefits to firefighters and commanders, heavy media participation guaranteed exposure for the event. Television crews accompanied firefighters upstairs and observed fires being set. Cameras captured involvement and heavy smoke channeling down corridors.

Hubbard, who is director of public affairs, escorted the media and learned that they did not expect what occurred. "It was immediately clear that they misunderstood the true effects of fire," he said.

News crews set up about five units from the fire room and watched smoke belch from the room. As fire broke into the hallway, media members crouched to their knees. "They began feeling the heat and started coughing and gagging," recalled Hubbard. "You could hear the fear in their voices as they retreated to the stairwell. This wasn't the way Hollywood portrays fire situations."

With the fire progressing, media crews were taken to a balcony below the fire floor to observe responding apparatus and how tactics unfolded. Several broadcast the event "live" on newscasts.

Baltimore County's project was not only successful because of the newfound experience and lessons learned officials are particularly happy that with 700 firefighters operating on the scene, not one injury occurred. They plan to use other unique structures for training this fall when they practice collapse rescue skills at a warehouse slated for demolition. The large, open spaces will offer another opportunity for safe, monitored instruction. A two-story vacant elementary school is also on the menu.

"It's hard to get these specialized structures," Hubbard said, "so we feel it's been quite a good year for training."

Joseph Louderback, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a member of the Milmont Fire Company in Milmont Park, PA.

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