by MICHAEL DASHIELL
While always dangerous, being a firefighter used to be a relatively basic task, says Sequim assistant fire chief Ben Andrews.
In the 1970s, many firefighters also became medics.
In the 1980s, they became experts with hazardous material spills.
In the 1990s, they added technical rescues to the repertoire.
In the early 2000s, firefighters had to learn a new skill set to be part of national Homeland Security efforts.
“We’ve added so much (to fighting fires),” Andrews says. “We need to get back to the roots of it.”
Clallam County Fire District 3 took a big step toward that this month with the addition of a new burn trailer — a so-called “burn box” — plus a second, complementary box that allows firefighters to recreate real fire situations.
The additions are a big step for the fire district, Andrews said, because most in-the-field fire training isn’t realistic: Fire simulations often are required to use propane gas — which doesn’t produce smoke, as in a real structure fire — or they’re staged at abandoned structures that are hardly similar to most real fire situations.
As in the latter case, a few firefighters get just one chance to simulate handling a fire — and often a dangerous simulation at that.
With the ‘burn box,” any number of firefighters can take part in relatively safe fire simulations. The “burn box” allows district employees and trainees (such as volunteers) to tackle a series of real-life fire situations, manipulating the size and temperature of the fire, the approach to the fire source, the location of the burning materials inside the box and more.
“The flexibility with scenarios (is big),” Andrews said. “With downtown Sequim or the Sunnyside Apartments, we can create that look.”‘That’s when firefighters die’
The fire phenomenon of a “backdraft” — popularized by a movie of the same name in 1991 — details explosive or quick burning of heated gases that happens when a building that has not been ventilated properly and has a depleted supply of oxygen because of fire suddenly gets an oxygen source.
Equally dangerous is another potentially fatal phenomenon known as a “flashover.”
That happens when temperatures get so hot inside an enclosed structure that everything — from the floor to the ceiling — simultaneously catches on fire.
“That,” Andrews says, “is when firefighters die.”
Ralph Omlid, a retired fire battalion chief from Everett and developer of this “burn box,” and his training partners have come up with techniques to help firefighters determine whether a structure is headed toward a “flashover” situation.
By taking one’s glove off and slowly moving it from the floor up toward the ceiling, a firefighter can tell the temperature of a room and, knowing how hot it needs to be for a “flashover,” determine the next course of action.
At about 400 degrees, the hand instinctively wants to pull back, Andrews says. A structure with a mid-wall temperature of that is about ready for a “flashover.”
“Everything is rooted in science,” says John Tanaka, one of the instructors.
Tanaka and other firefighters from Everett visited the Olympic Peninsula this month, helping train local firefighters so they can pass along training to their own staffers and volunteers.
“Our department and these trainers are really dedicated to realistic training,” Andrews says.
“No one’s ever taken the science and applied it in the field. (Now) we can be safer, get better at our job, (fight fires) faster, use less water and do less damage.”A modified container
Standing about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long, Fire District 3’s new “burn box” actually is a modified shipping cargo container.
On the outside, it looks like any other cargo container but on the inside, the stainless-steel, double-lined walls are coated with fire-resistant material and several hatch-like squares that serve as windows (on the side) and roof vents (on top).
Metal chains hang from the ceiling, allowing combustible materials such as wood to simulate burning roofs.
The floor is lined with concrete bricks that can withstand the hottest temperatures inside the box: up to 1,700 degrees for up to an hour, Andrews says. In fire simulations using propane gas, the maximum heat gets to about 1,200 degrees, he says.
Heat monitors at the floor, mid-wall and the ceiling tell how hot the burn box is on the inside. The “burn box” is computerized, giving firefighters the option to log situations, graph data and make charts of each training session.
The “burn box” and what firefighters call the “approach box” are mobile; they can be loaded onto trailers and set on flat surfaces virtually anywhere.A training tool for all
The project isn’t all about playing with fire. Students using the “burn box” are asked to do plenty of work in the classroom to understand the science behind each technique before taking part in a fire simulation.
Before, local firefighters would have to do this kind of training at the state fire training academy in North Bend or in Bremerton.
Instead, firefighters and volunteers can come here for the training.
“There’s this panic that comes over these new volunteers,” said District 3 Fire Chief Steve Vogel.
“We … want them to know when to get out.”
Vogel says the district is hoping to be able to use the “burn box” at a Clallam County gravel pit in Blyn.
As of now, firefighters use the burn box in the parking lot of the abandoned Fairview Elementary School, closed since 2007.
Andrews said he’s hoping the district can get a special-use permit to use the “burn box” at the district’s property in Carlsborg. Because Greywolf Elementary is nearby, firefighters aren’t allowed to burn the wood pallets that cause air pollution.
If allowed to use the “burn box” there, Andrew said, it would be for weekend training only.
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com
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