Training by fire
by Christina Rowland
Apr 24, 2012 | 1456 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Christina Rowland photo 
A team of firefighters douses a pit fire as part of a training exercise recently. The pit fire was one of three live fire exercises that the volunteer firefighters were exposed to during the Beeville Fire School.
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BEEVILLE – Close to the monstrous flames it is hot; tilt the head back just a little, and it suddenly gets a whole lot hotter as heat drifts up behind the protective face mask. In a matter of seconds, there are sweat beads forming on the face.

Push the mask back down and take 10 steps back. Everything feels cool again even though the outfit is pounds of heavy material. One resembles a marshmallow man, but who is worried about looks when the clothing is rated for 1,000 degrees in heat. Protection over fashion wins.

Pick up the hose and get ready. The fuel tank sitting inside the concrete berm is engulfed in flames. It is time to put out those monstrous flames. Walk forward; listen for the commander to yell out the next set of instructions. Putting out this fire is not a job for one man but for teams of several.

The hose moves back and forth with a semi fog stream of water flowing out as the team members slowly inch their way forward closer to the flames. The fire needs to be moved into the corner where it can be smothered. As one team continues to spray the fire and move it toward the corner of the berm the other team covers them. The flame is finally smothered and extinguished. Once it is out, back slowly away. Don’t move the eyes away from the fuel tank that was inflamed minutes earlier — wouldn’t want it to reignite.

Once the team is backed away, lift the face shield again and listen for the instructor critique.

Live fire training

This was just a drill. A drill that was performed over and over again on April 14 as firefighters from around the area completed live fire training.

The 56 students from volunteer fire departments around the area, including Beeville, Pawnee, Pettus, Skidmore, Karnes County, George West and Live Oak County, participated in the fire training school. The students were completing their second week of module two exercises for basic fire training.

The live fire simulations were not a required part of module two but rather an additional part of the class that gave the training students real-world experience.

There were two other live fire exercises that students were put through during the class that lasted well into the night. For each exercise, the students were broken down into small teams.

The cottage fire was what course organizer and Assistant Volunteer Fire Chief Bill Burris considered to be one of the more important live fire exercises that the students were exposed to.

He said small structure fires account for more than half of the calls in this area to which firefighters respond.

Cottage fire drill

Walking up to the cottage is not intimidating. Just make sure your air nozzle is on and the oxygen is following. Instructors enter the structure first through what is supposed to be the garage. A metal structure is loaded with hay, and students in full bunker gear and oxygen packs are ushered into the small room. The door is shut behind them. Eleven students watch closely as the instructor lights the hay on fire and the small room fills with smoke. When the hay is inflamed and the smoke thick, the door is open and the students are let out. They now know what to expect when entering a room full of smoke.

Time to do the exercise again, but this time the fire will be lit somewhere in the multi-room cottage. The firefighters will enter through the front door on hands and knees (smoke rises); they will crawl through the structure, locating the fire and putting it out before retreating back outside.

The last of the live fire activities was propane fires, several types of which the group was exposed to. The first was a propane tank fire. This is the kind of fire that could be found in someone’s back yard or at a propane filling facility.

Everyone watches closely as the man with the torch goes up to light the first large tank. It lights, and the flames grow bigger, reaching up into the sky. The three teams pick up their hoses and prepare to move forward.

It is all about teamwork and communication. Each team member listens closely to find out if the hose commander needs more hose, less hose, needs to move right or left.

Must work together

The teams have to work together to move the fire away from the valve that controls the gas flow from the tank and keeps the fire going. When the teams get a couple of feet from the valve, a team member lets go of the hose and yells “cover me” to the hose commanders leading the two teams spraying water. The leaders make sure the fire is moved away from the valve, and the chosen firefighter reaches out and turns off the valve, allowing the free flowing gas that fed the fire to cease. With the gas turned off, the teams are able to fully extinguish the fire. At the instruction from the hose commander, they back away slowly still keeping their eyes on tank.

The live fire training was intense and as real as it will get for most of the volunteer firefighters until they are called out to a fire. The live fire training, while important, was only a small portion of what the students did over the two weekends that make up the module two class.

Each student earned 36 credit hours toward one’s basic certification by completing module two. Other important objectives that the students learned and mastered during the second weekend of the two-weekend course were “two in and two out,” which teaches students about going into live situations in pairs or groups and coming out the same. This ensures that every firefighter is accounted for at all times.

Not like on TV

Forcible entry was covered in module two as well. As cool as it looks on TV when police go kicking down doors to get into buildings, that is not the way the firefighters do it in real life. They have special tools that are used for every situation, whether it be a locked front door of a home or a padlocked storage building.

Proper building ventilation was taught. What happens after the fire is extinguished? The space has to be properly ventilated and aired out, and there is a method for that.

During the first weekend of training that took place in March, the students were taught about rescue operations, ladder practices, fire science and more.

None of the training would be possible without the dedication of more than 50 instructors who gave their time to teach the various portions of the module. Each portion needed an instructor certified in that area to teach it.

Dedicated instructors

Instructors from around the area volunteered their time to make the class possible. Firefighters from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi taught the pit fire portion. Firefighters from the Celanese Bishop plant taught the propane fire portion, and instructors from Beeville, Rockport and Stockdale helped to teach the cottage fire exercises.

Module two is only one of five modules that the students must complete to receive their basic certification.

Burris said all five modules can be completed in one year if the student travels around the state completing different module courses on the weekends.

Once all courses are complete, the student will receive his basic certification.

All departments in the surrounding counties and towns are volunteer fire departments, and all of the members have at some point gone through the same course.

The volunteer departments function at the same level of a regular fire department in any major city.

“We do the same thing as a paid fire department does,” Burris said.

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