A loud explosion caused firefighter recruits a moment’s hesitation Thursday as they cautiously approached the flaming wreckage of an SUV on the grounds of the county’s Public Safety Training Facility.
“There go the struts,” said Capt. Lenne Stolberg, laughing as several people standing around the training field flinched.
A second later, the recruits were again advancing on the fire. They sprayed a jet of water underneath the SUV to clear any potentially flammable fluids from the pavement before attacking the flames in the cabin head-on.
“We teach them to come at it from an angle, not straight on from the front or the rear of the vehicle, because a lot of times, vehicles have these gas struts in the front and back bumpers for the vehicle to absorb impact from collision,” Stolberg said. “As that gas heats up as the engine compartment is exposed to fire, there’s instances where those struts have blown up and separated from the car.”
A few steps away, Lt. Mike Webb knelt with the last group of recruits to complete the station. After reviewing the importance of approaching the fire from a safe angle and telling the group where to head next, Webb turned suddenly to face a recruit to his left, his voice taking on a sharper tone.
“You’re getting a block,” Webb told the recruit, referring to the heavy cinder blocks instructors make recruits carry as punishment for a variety of infractions. “Do you have any question as to why?”
“No, sir,” the recruit said, his shoulders slumping visibly under his heavy turnout coat.
“Good,” Webb said pointedly before turning back to the class to announce the recruit’s error: failing to properly secure his mask-mounted regulator.
Effectively, the recruit was exposed to all of the harmful, potentially carcinogenic chemicals in the smoke from the fire, Webb said, his voice softening a fraction as he wrapped up the impromptu lesson.
“I don’t want you to get cancer today and not find out about it until 30 years from now,” Webb said, before sending the group on to the next training station.
The importance of the lesson was not lost on any of the recruits in Class 21, which handled its first live burn exercises Wednesday and Thursday during its fifth week at the academy.
“Safety is the biggest thing that they try to emphasize here,” said recruit Alexandra Biris, speaking after her group finished the exercise. “Like, you can’t go into a fire without your breathing apparatus because you could get cancer or any number of other diseases or sicknesses down the road.”
Another big takeaway for Biris, one of Class 21’s squad leaders, was the importance of communication between the recruits during training.
“Without that? We don’t have a team. ... And now that we’re in the fifth week, we’re really coming together,” she said. “As a squad leader, I’m not having to monitor as much, and we’re getting pretty tight.”
The change was not lost on the instructors, who tend to start looking for more cohesion from their recruits after about a month of almost daily physical training. Tough lessons begin to sink in.
“You can see it when it happens,” said Lt. Bob McCaa, the lead instructor for Recruit Class 20. “It’s like a light comes on for them, and it’s great to watch as instructors because we can see they’re starting to see these lessons as more than us just talking; they’re putting it into practice.”
Back on the training ground, a line of four recruits inched closer to a dumpster engulfed in flames. Their thick gloved hands held the hose under the watchful eyes of several instructors.
As the group prepared to douse the fire, the nearest recruit holding the nozzle suddenly reached a hand up to his mask, reassuring himself that the regulator was in place before stepping fully into the plume of noxious black smoke billowing from the dumpster.
Watching from the rear, his own face safely covered by a regulator and mask, Webb nodded approvingly.
Hefting a cinder block around the academy grounds may seem severe to a casual observer, but everything at the academy is designed to teach the recruits a potentially lifesaving lesson, said Webb, Class 21’s lead instructor.
“The thought is that it’ll be a reminder next time for [the recruit] to take the proper safety procedures,” Webb said. Each block is marked with three words: teamwork, discipline and knowledge.
Soon, the recruits will be doing training on putting out live house fires in the training facility’s specially designed burn building, Webb said. A problem with a regulator could be much costlier in the confined space of a building than it would be to breathe carcinogens while in the open air.
“It’s an effort to correct an action that could cause great harm to them or one of their teammates once they leave here and go into the field,” Webb said. “This one could fall under the ‘discipline’ category, because he wasn’t disciplined enough to be aware of his surroundings and ensure his safety before advancing on the fire.”