When firefighters arrive at the scene of a burning house, they've already had numerous hours of training. Just knowing how to put on all the personal protective equipment needed for the job, from turnout coats and pants to hot shield face protection and the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), takes hours of training and repetition.
But how does a firefighter learn how to enter a burning building, or even know when it's appropriate, especially in a rural place like Delta County, where, fortunately, the opportunity rarely comes up?
Starting last Wednesday, area fire departments had the opportunity to train in a variety of live fire situations using the Mobile Live Training Unit (MLTU). The unit, made by Dräger, was on loan from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (CDFPC). According to Lisa Pine, CDFPC training and safety officer, the unit was purchased last December with funding from the U.S. Fire Administration, an entity of the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state provides funding for transportation of the unit, and for training.
Since last spring, said Pine, more than 250 Colorado firefighters have benefited, and the unit is booked for the remainder of this year. Overall, the unit is a great training tool, said Pine. The state is always looking for ways to support firefighter training, and the MLTU gives firefighters a chance to experience a live structure fire without the dangers inherent in a live fire.
"I don't see anything going wrong," said Jason Clark, Training Division Chief with Colorado River Fire Rescue in Rifle, in preparing me to participate in a fire evolution and take photos on the first night of training. "But as firefighters there is inherent danger to what we do. That's why we train the way we do."
Clark grew up in Crawford and is a 1997 graduate of Hotchkiss High School. He started with the Crawford Fire Department and went on to earn a degree in fire protection and safety at Oklahoma State University. He has about 18 years of firefighting experience and is one of a handful of trainers with the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control and Colorado Fire Training Officers Association. He also volunteers his time to travel and conduct the trainings.
The MLTU, explained Clark, is a gas-fired facility equipped with two, 200-pound-capacity propane tanks. The expandable two-story MLTU, the size of a semi trailer when collapsed, is operated electronically by a remote control carried by the trainer. The MLTU is capable of simulating situations from a small kitchen flare-up, to an out-of-control fire with extreme heat, high humidity, rollovers and thick smoke. Like real furniture, a stainless steel La-Z-Boy-type recliner can smolder and flare back up after the fire appears to be out.
To ensure they're following protocol, Clark said he keeps feeding the flames until the firefighters do everything right.
Moveable walls allow for different scenarios and increased or decreased challenge levels based on each department's training needs. A control room with monitors allows for observation and recording of training sessions, and has an emergency-stop button for the gas.
Hotchkiss Fire District Chief Doug Fritz said this kind of training is invaluable to his department. He urges his volunteers to go through as many evolutions possible. "The evolutions are all about getting this right," said Fritz.
The MLTU also provides opportunities for live fire training that are otherwise hard to come by. Because they are more likely to respond to a wildland fire, about 70-75 percent of the department's training and certifications is in wildland fires, said Fritz, which makes the MLTU training especially valuable.
Hotchkiss Assistant Fire Chief Ray Penland said the department is made largely of younger volunteers, "So there's not a lot of seasoned firefighters." As with a structure fire, fighting a wildland fire has a steep learning curve. In 1994, 14 elite firefighters lost their lives in the South Canyon Fire in Glenwood Springs, and in 2013, 19 elite firefighters died in the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Ariz. "There's a fine line between staying and going," said Penland, and knowing to recognize it can only be learned through years of experience.
On average, the department responds to two or three building fires a year, and at one point went 39 months without responding to one. That's good, but it also means firefighters don't get much-needed training, he said. In the past, departments have relied on condemned and abandoned structures for training, but finding, acquiring, and preparing structures to meet minimum National Fire Protection Agency environmental, safety and other guidelines can be very expensive. All contents must be removed, and structures often need repairs or removal of asbestos prior to burning. "It's very costly and time-consuming to do so," said Clark.
And while they burn only once, the MLTU allows firefighters to conduct repeated live fire evolutions.
The art and science of fighting fires has evolved over the last few years, and the image of firefighters arriving at the scene and running into a burning building is largely a thing of the past. Because much of today's building material is plastic, fires burn very hot and very quickly, said Fritz. In addition, today's structures tend to lose structural integrity and can collapse quickly. Because of this, many fires are typically fought from outside the structure.
"The new theory is to try to knock the fire down from the yard and then go clean it up," said Fritz, which the MLTU also provides for.
Colorado is in need of certified firefighters, which is another use for the MLTU, said Pine. "That's really the reason the state got this."
As for affordability, the only cost to fire departments is in refilling the propane tanks, said Pine. That means that firefighters from Delta, Hotchkiss, Crawford and Paonia were able to train for the cost of propane and a few other associated costs, including water, beverages and pizza, since training is done in the cool of the evening.
Pine said feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The CDFPC was recently notified that it will receive grant funding for a second unit, which should be available by 2017. Departments will also soon have access to fire engine driving simulators, which Fritz said he will request.
After the first few evolutions, Fritz said some common mistakes were already being addressed and corrected. "All of our guys are going to be a little bit better for this," he said. "They're not going to be like seasoned New York City firefighters, but they'll make a big step up for Hotchkiss firefighters."