WESTON, W.Va. — It is dark at the hotel as members of different fire departments from Logan County arrive and start checking in. Tomorrow they will undertake their final training at the West Virginia State Fire Academy in Weston with a harrowing trip inside a trailer that is set up to simulate a burning building complete with flashovers and ceiling fires. A few of the younger firefighters are understandably nervous. It will be around 500 degrees in the floor of the trailer, where they will be crawling around, pulling a massive firehose and trying to put out the propane flames. The ceiling can get over 1,300 degrees hot.
“It’s as real as they can make it,” notes one firefighter.
To allay some of that nervousness among the younger men, the older, more experienced firefighters are sharing salty and often humorous stories of their own experiences inside of burning structures.
Chris Hatfield, fire marshal for the Logan Fire Department, tells a story about a fellow fireman who fell through a floor on a ground level structure. Main Island Creek Volunteer Fire Department Chief Steve Stone shares some incidents where structures got fully engulfed and firemen were in fear of being trapped. It is apparent that all of these members of different fire departments share a common bond.
The shared stories help relieve the younger men of some of their apprehension because the following day they are all going into a burning building as part of the required training in the Firefighter One course at the Fire Academy. Firefighter One is a 120 hour course with a thick textbook and plenty of classroom instruction and training simulations.
“These young men have given up eight weekends of their summer to get this training,” one instructor notes.
The old days of a guy just joining a fire department and being a fireman are over and specialized training is now mandated. And the training is two fold — one to help save new firefighters lives by giving them information and tactics to help them come out of a fire alive and to make them better firemen, so they can save lives and property.
Main Island Creek sent Connor Ellis, Zachary T. McCoy and Ryan Queen to the academy for the training and they were joined by Trent and Stone who will be helping them out and overseeing.
Michael R. Gibson of the City of Logan Fire Department was there along with Hatfield. Buffalo Creek’s Austin Compton and Joseph Daniels were joined later by observers Chief James Lee and Jesse Lee.
Hatfield prepares a fire camera to go into the $850,000 fire trailer and is told, “I would not take that in there — I melted mine,” by one instructor.
The fires in the trailer are controlled by computers and an operator in a small room on the side of the structure, which has two stories.
Instructor Matt Reed tells the students about the backgrounds of his fellow instructors before finishing the final day of classroom instruction on July 25, 2015. Reed has been teaching at the West Virginia State Fire Academy for six years.
“We have a lot of knowledge here,” Reed says of his fellow instructors. “If you have questions we have answers.”
“We will talk about the burn trailer and the tactics we will use,” Reed tells the students. He is a large man with a good sense of humor. Throughout the day he quips about “spirited discussions” among firefighters who got into it on the scene of some bad fires.
Mike Hart discusses how fires have changed over the years due to the switchover to synthetic materials, pressed wood and other items in manufacturing and housewares. In the old days a fireman had 30 minutes to put out a fire and keep it from flashing over, he explains, due to the slower burning rate of natural materials like solid wood. The synthetics have cut that time in half meaning the danger is much greater today, despite improvements in critical safety gear. Not only are flash fires more common, today’s fires fueled by synthetic materials also burn much hotter.
“We went from fighting fires outside the home to fighting them inside with the new gear and now it has come full circle, we are fighting fires from outside again,” he said. “Hit it hard from the yard.”
Matt Reed and Mike Hart discussed the tragic fire in South Carolina in June of 2007 when several firefighters lost their lives in a structure fire that turned out to have been an abandoned building. They mistakenly were told that there were transients in the area inside the burning structure when in fact the transients were across the street. Pairs of firefighters kept going in until they were stopped. In all, nine people died from that fire.
But running into a burning building to rescue people who were not there was not the only mistake made, Hart and Reed noted.
The firemen had deployed a one inch diameter line that did not have enough water power or pressure. Another firefighter made a mistake in hooking and pulling out two large bay windows in the old furniture building. This let oxygen get in and made the fire burn hotter.
“This is the kind of stuff that haunts the fire service,” Reed said of the mistakes made that day and the lives they cost. “Firefighter safety has to be paramount.”
The instructors note that firefighters have three goals — preserving their own lives and others, stabilizing fires and putting them out and preserving public property.
Factors that can affect a firefighter achieving those goals include manpower, the environment (a fire on a hot day is a different fire than one in ice and snow), water supplies, utilities, properly maintained gear and teamwork.
“You have to know your fellow firefighters strengths and weaknesses,” Reed notes. “I keep harping on new construction versus old construction but it is a factor, “ Reed said, explaining that newer buildings made of synthetics have about 15 minutes before they flash over and become fully engulfed.
“That’s usually about the time you arrive,” he said, noting older buildings made with natural materials have about a half an hour before they reach that point. “You have more time with a traditional older building.”
Modern turnout gear starts to break up at 1,500 degrees. A flashover can get to 2000 degrees. “You do the math,” Reed said.
Several instructors made reference to legendary West Virginia firefighter Lloyd Layman. In addition to inventing new equipment, Layman had a philosophy about the “Seven Factors of Firefighting — Rescues, exposure, confinement, extinguishment, overhaul, ventilation and salvage.
Following Reed’s classroom instruction the men retreat to a large garage and start putting on their turn out gear of heavy pants and coat, Nomex hoods, boots, self contained breathing apparatus airpacks and helmets and gloves.
“All your gear together generally weighs about 50 pounds, I would guess,” longtime fireman Forest “Frosty” Trent said. Trent is on hand with water — and plenty of it — as well as Gatorade and PowerAid for when the men come out of the burning structure.
“We have the trailer set up with propane gas lines for the fires so we can simulate a structure fire,” instructor Randy James explains. “We can also simulate car fires, plane fires and a natural gas well fire.”
The burn house has movable walls so it can be reconfigured in different ways inside. Two instructors will be with the firefighters at all times. The building will be filled with smoke created artificially with mineral oil. It has four large stop buttons for if the scenario becomes too intense.
The firemen are given 90 seconds to get into their turnout gear and report to the burn trailer. Two men will enter at a time while two fellow firefighters will remain outside and will pull the heavy water hoses in to help feed the lines to the men inside who in turn will try to put out the fires. Reed is inside the control room monitoring and changing things. Smoke and water are soon pouring outside of the heavy metal structure.
“This is as real as it can get without risking a life,” notes one of the firemen observing the training. “But it’s better than the old days of having to learn inside a building burning out of control.”
After each team and agency has gone through the structure they are brought back to the nearby garage to cool down and cool off while the experienced instructors give them instructive criticism which will help them someday.
When they have cooled off and rested up, they get geared up again to put out a simulated automobile fire. An old police-type car, sitting on welded extensions, is set ablaze via a propane line. Two firefighters at a time sweep the wheel area with water to put the ‘tires’ out and then spray the undercarriage and inside of the car until the fire is out. One of the instructors notes the reason for the tire sweep is because a burning tire exploding is the most common danger they will face in dealing with a burning automobile.