Lowell Area Fire Department Trains with Live Burns

It’s not often an area fire department has the opportunity to practice live burns in a vacated house.  But this past Saturday 18 members of the Lowell Area Fire Department along with crews from Ada, Cascade, Alto, and Saranac such training.

Donating a House
Many think of donating organs as a means to save lives.  Some even donate their bodies to science upon death to be used for research and medical training.  Shirley Thompson donated something which would serve as an important training tool as a means to save lives.  Her house.

Thompson moved into the house located at Cascade and Timpson in 1967.  It had already stood the test of time having been built before the Civil War.  She and her husband raised five children in the home before moving out in 1993. Thompson recalls replacing various things within the home over the years.  The family has retained ownership; the house has been a home for other members of the family throughout the years.

About a year ago the house was boarded up.  Beyond being able to be repaired and maintained it was no longer a living space.  Thompson decided to donate the house to the Lowell Area Fire Department.  It took time to get the right paperwork in order but it was worth the wait.

The Thompson family took out any remaining personal items and parts of the house they wanted to keep.  The siding and shingles were removed.  The house also had to be asbestos free and considered demo ready.   The house sat in an ideal location in a country setting without other homes nearby.  It was also clear of trees which could be difficult to deal with in a training exercise.

Hands-On Training
The Lowell Area Fire Department’s Chief Ron van Overbeek has been instrumental in providing training opportunities for the department.  Twice a month the department has various training sessions.  Some are more of a school setting learning from books and presentations and some are out in the field experiences.

For Saturday’s training approximately six live fire simulations were conducted.  A small fire was started in various rooms in the house.  A training team would get practical training being able to see how quickly a room fills with smoke, experience having to use breathing equipment, and be able to extinguish the fire and make sure the entire team evacuates.

Lowell’s Mayor Mike DeVore participated in the training as part of the medical component.    Working with American Medical Response he was part of a team on location in the event anyone needed medical assistance.  DeVore said in his 15 years in the industry he has only seen five live house burns.  He also explained some of what the firefighters were doing as they prepared for a house fire scenario.

Oxygen tanks are checked to ensure proper flow before entering the house.  A sound similar to an old bicycle bell indicates there is 25% left in the tank.  The tank is used more quickly when breathing and working harder during an actual fire compared to standing in one place.  Each firefighter also wears a device which beeps after 30 seconds of non-movement is detected.  Around the 15 second mark a beep is heard as a warning.  Some movement will turn off the warning.  But if someone were in trouble and becomes inactive for more than 30 seconds a warning is sent out so other members of the team can find the person potentially in need of assistance.

“Two in, two out.” says DeVore of the philosophy upheld by the department.  Working in teams of two within a larger group promotes safety of the team.  As members of the participating fire departments finished and waited for their next turn they talked about the scenarios.  “The room filled up with smoke so quickly.” said one person about the training.  “In a matter of seconds I couldn’t see the guy next to me or my hand in front of my face.” commented another.

Training in an actual house also gives firefighters the opportunity to practice things such as knowing where you are at all times.  It’s easy to become disoriented when you can’t see and have the added pressure of dealing with a fire.  Keeping in contact with something physical be it a wall, the person next to you, or the water hose helps firefighters know where they are at all times.

The Final Act

The last exercise of the training was watching the entire house burn down.  A fire was started in a crawl space beneath the house.  Those in training were able to see how smoke formed and the fire moved throughout the building.  Captain Shannon Witherell said when at one point the pattern of the smoke before any fire was seen indicated the source was in the attic.  Dealing with a building where flames are not present can be tricky.  It was important for those in training to recognize what is seen does not always indicate the true story of what is happening.

It took about 15 minutes after the fire was started to see actual flames.   Although the fire was started under the main floor, flames were first seen on the roof.  The fire then spread to other parts of the house.  As the structure weakened parts of it also collapsed.  Most notable was the roof of the second story taking out a brick chimney.  Ash also floated through the air, some of which were still hot enough to set the grass on fire around the house.  One firefighter stood with a hose to keep the grass damp and put out any fire which happened to start away from the home.

Shirley Thompson watches alongside Corey Velzen as her house is on fire.

And in about an hour it was gone.  The foundation remained with charred debris which was once a structure strong enough to withstand weather and keep people safe.  The fire was extinguished and what was left was checked for hot spots.

With the majority of house and other structure fires first responders typically do not enter the building.  People and animals are usually able to evacuate during a fire.  By the time a fire department arrives their focus is on putting the fire out rather than saving lives.  But this does not mean training on how to enter a building which is on fire is not important.  Having the opportunity to train in an actual house is a valuable experience.

Chief van Overbeek was sure to thank Shirley Thompson for her generous donation.  Between 30 and 40 participants involved in the training for the day are better prepared to save lives and battle fires because of this opportunity.

For more photos taken during this training event visit our Flickr album.  Lowell’s First Look thanks the Lowell Area Fire Department for the opportunity to watch this training event.


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