Recruit Class 21 finished its first month at the Frederick County Public Safety Training Facility with a class that Capt. Lenne Stolberg jokingly referred to as Burglary 101.
“As firefighters, we need to be able to enter a building quickly and easily to handle an emergency, but, as public servants, we want to do as minimal damage as possible, or no damage whatsoever, to get into that building,” Stolberg said on a tour of the training grounds Friday. “So, basically, like a burglar.”
A few steps away, one of the academy’s instructors, Lt. Bob McCaa, showed a group of recruits a table overflowing with different types of locks and door handles. After going over the ins and outs of the more common mechanisms, the recruits were given their own practice locks to dismantle.
Despite the obvious criminal applications of last week’s subject matter, the lessons in picking and disassembling locks had a far more altruistic objective at the academy.
“There may be a victim in there that we need to help, but we’re being taught ... [that] we’re also a customer-service position,” recruit Michael Curry said as the lieutenant concluded his lecture. “We’re here to help the public. We’re here to save people and help protect their personal property as much as possible.”
Of course, the conditions and other circumstances at the scene will ultimately determine whether or not firefighters will have time to finesse a lock, said Lt. Mike Webb, the lead instructor for Recruit Class 21. In many cases, firefighters have no choice but to immediately start forcing their way past barriers, making use of their multipurpose prybars — called Halligan tools in the firefighting service — or heavy industrial saws.
“The method of forcible entry is dependent on the nature of the emergency,” said Lt. Mike Webb, class 21’s lead instructor. “So if we show up and there’s fire coming out of the windows, we’re going to use the quickest means to get the job done. We’re not going to be going through the lock.”
To learn some of the more urgent entry tactics, the recruits gathered around the “Lt. James Main Forcible Entry Prop” shed next to the facility’s tower.
Named for the man who designed it, the shed is covered in securable entrances: inward and outward swinging doors, double doors secured with a crossbar and windows set behind seemingly impenetrable rebar beams.
The shed was designed to be both highly destructible and easily rebuildable, allowing instructors to replace a few key components — a wooden fastening block or a strip of steel hinge — to quickly reset the course for successive groups of recruits to tear through.
Sparks showered the asphalt next to one side of the shed where veteran Capt. Chris Mullendore and another guest instructor showed a group of recruits how to properly wield the K-12, a massive hand-held saw designed specifically for use by fire professionals.
“Whoa! Full throttle, remember? Full throttle before you cut!” Mullendore shouted as one of the recruits lowered the saw toward a door hinge without first allowing the powerful engine to rev up to its maximum velocity.
As the recruit corrected his mistake, pulling the spinning blade up to allow it to catch, a loud cracking noise could be heard from the other side of the shed where another guest instructor, Capt. Frank Malta, watched a separate group of recruits rip open a door by leveraging their Halligan tools against the jamb.
The recruit closest to the door scrambled a short distance forward as the door swung inward beyond the reach of the Halligan tool’s hook.
“You guys have got to remember to control that door, OK?” Malta said, reminding the class how dangerous things could become once the oxygen held back by a locked door was allowed to rush into a burning building. “Controlling the door is huge; that’s the only thing preventing fire from coming out to where you are.”
The day’s lesson came full circle back inside the training annex as several firefighters-in-training carefully spread out heavy red plastic tarps over the floor.
As the recruits carefully folded the tarps back up, recruit Patrick Mangus explained how learning to properly use and care for the tarps would help him and his fellow recruits mitigate the damage done to people’s homes and businesses after an emergency has been handled.
“For example, if there’s a fire on the second story but the first story is relatively untouched, we can still try to save some of their personal belongings [under the tarp] so it’s not as hard a loss for them,” Mangus said. “It all goes back to our role as public servants.”