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In the dark maze of a local abandoned structure, a Manchester Fire Department entry team works to get their bearings.
Vision is nil.
Low on air, the team consisting of firefighter Chris Marcrom and Administrative Capt. Amber Reed prepare to punch through an interior wall to find their lifeline, a 1¾ -inch hose that will direct them to safety.
“Mayday…Mayday, we’ve just had a roof collapse,” Reed calls over the radio.
It’s only training, but it’s designed to be as intense as any real-world situation.
Marcrom and Reed, low to the ground. She uses a mule kick to break through the drywall. Marcrom cuts a spider web of electrical wires before the two can squeeze themselves, air tanks and an assortment of gear through the 16-inch wide sliver of space they have made between the wall joists.
“For me, this is reality,” she said.
Getting through and then crabbing through the obstacle course that follows will push the two to the edge of panic.
“Control you breathing,” yells nearby fire instructor Joey Edwards over a barrage of noise the other members of MFD A-shift make to simulate the chaos inside a structure fire.
“If you can’t save yourself, you can’t save the victims,” the Fire Service and Code Enforcement Academy instructor explains during the debriefing that followed.
“It’s important to know your physical limitations,” he repeatedly stresses to the rescuers. “Every fire’s different…but this is something you can put in your toolbox and keep until you need it.”
The mid-day June sun beats down on the old Hillsboro Boulevard pool hall and the makeshift recovery station just outside, but it’s not nearly as hot were the fire were real.
“It’s a lot different doing it in June as going through in January,” offers firefighter Eli Kidder.
Successful completion of a similar course is required of all new academy recruits. But thanks to the local, six-day training session all members of MFD will get their turn too.
It’s part of a training program based on incidents that have cost firefighters across the state their lives.
Edwards explained that one obstacle, a plywood passageway with thick electrical wires crisscrossing the length, was designed in the wake of a Memphis firefighter’s death in an attic after becoming ensnared in the home’s wiring.
The firefighters learn to “swim” through using a free arm to make a path for the rest of their body.
It’s slow going, frustrating and claustrophobic. Wires and corners grab any loose equipment.
“What was going through my head while we were doing this,” Reed later said, “is stay calm, don’t give up and GET OUT.
“I was constantly telling myself that I am strong and I can handle this and I will not let this get the best of me. And I was going home to see my daughter and my husband.”
She said that when she got stuck and snagged up, she’d stop for a second and think “I know what I am trying to do and I have to hum, sing a song in my head, remember the task at hand, and barrel my way out of that building.”
Most would agree the training is intense but necessary to save lives.
Chief George DeShields said firefighters are increasingly more likely to die in a fire.
“Firefighters are dying during structural fire incidents at an alarming rate. The use of lightweight and energy efficient construction methods, increased fuel loading and unprepared or untrained firefighters…forms a deadly combination.
“We’re giving firefighters the skills to breech walls, find openings and get through obstacles to self-rescue.”
He said that the department is fortunate to have the location to set up such realistic training. He said he passed by the structure and noticed that two Dumpsters were outside.
DeShields approached the owner for permission for training.
“He’s given us the opportunity to come in and train in dark environment. We put some cover up stuff inside their masks and give them a scenario.”
Normally when a team has entered a structure, a Rapid Intervention Team would be on standby to rescue firefighters in trouble.
“These are skills that we train so well, we hope they’ll never have to use them,” said state fire instructor Terry Smith, who assisted with the second phase of training that was held at Thursday, Friday and Saturday at a city-owned vacant house on Waite St. It covered upper floor egresses, including bailout drills, ladder slides and hose slides.
These are the last-ditch, self-saving skills that the firefighter fighters are taught to never need.
The scenario for phase two – a firefighter has entered a burning structure and moved to the second floor. He has moved from the hose and the fire has spread behind him cutting off his way out.
He has only minutes to close himself off, break through the window and make an egress before flashover, the point when every combustible item in the room passes ignition point and burst into flame.
One bailout technique the firefighters practiced was a headfirst roll out the window with an emergency rope descent.
First, an anchor was made from hammering a Halligan tool into the floor with a knotted rope. The widow was removed. Firefighters took turns rolling headfirst out the window using the friction of a rope wrapped around their air tanks to slow their descent. For safety, a second belay line was tied to the firefighters.
“This is something that should be practiced regularly by every department,” Smith said.
Smith added that MFD has the some of the best-trained crew of any of the departments he has worked with.