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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Firefighter Training an Eye-Opener to Department Needs

Firefighter Training an Eye-Opener to Department Needs
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)

Fairfield, CT – They say the only way to truly appreciate what someone does is to walk a mile in their shoes… or boots and toting close to hundred pounds of gear and equipment in this case.

Saturday morning, the Fairfield Citizen embedded itself with career firefighters at the Fairfield Regional Fire School on One Rod Highway to do just that. The interaction involved exercises providing education about firefighters’ roles and an understanding of equipment and manpower needs for reference during town budget evaluation times.

Over 40 firefighters, drawn from Fairfield, Westport and Stratford, were on hand to shadow half a dozen participants, help operate equipment and lead demonstrations of both equipment and firefighting processes.

Overseen by Fairfield Asst. Chief Scott Bisson, the Incident Commander for the day, the morning began in a classroom setting with a short film titled “Smoke Showing”, giving an overview about command hierarchy, firefighting strategies and safety advisories. Bisson commented that there are four essentials that determine the outcome of a fire: training, technology, staffing and notification.

First Selectman Mike Tetreau, an alumnus of the program, extended a welcome, and shared in an aside, “It’s an equipment intensive job, and this program reinforces that. I think we’ve always supported the needs of the fire department – you know someone’s life depends on it and you want the best equipment out there.”

Organizers on the drill grounds – which includes the training center, an annex classroom, propane fire area, four-story tower, two-story burn building, vehicle “boneyard” and a new flashover simulator – wasted no time in immersing this reporter in the most demanding of activities: a live structural fire attack.

Suited up from head to toe in full gear and outfitted with an air tank and mask, Probationary Firefighter Mike Lauterborn was placed at the head of a hose line and sent into the burn building with a support crew of “wranglers” to battle a live fire. Hay and wood pallets had been ignited in a bottom floor room, producing thick smoke that carried upwards in the unventilated structure. The result was almost zero visibility, making keeping a hand on the hose line a critical measure to safely navigate the structure.

“Typically,” said Asst. Chief Chris Tracy, “an interior is fully charged with velvety black smoke, there’s no clear indication of a fire and you have to listen for the pops, crackles and small explosions to find it. Guys on the line shout to each other or use signals or back slaps to communicate – one for stop, two for go. Then we look to hit the seat, or hottest point, of the fire.”

At the next activity station, focused on emergency medical services, Lt. Erik Kalapir noted, “Sixty to seventy percent of our calls are medical based. In Fairfield, private service AMR is the responder, however, firefighters are the first responders. With five fire stations across town, we can get to almost any home in four to six minutes, to do defibrillations, administer medicines, provide oxygen therapy and more. With the downturn in the economy and an aging population, we’re being asked to do more, with less. We’re losing a piece of the budget pie to other community needs and constantly having to reorganize and reinvent ourselves.”

The Forcible Entry and Search & Rescue station, operated by Firefighters Salvato, Goletz and DeNitto, involved the use of “irons” – a Halligan bar and flathead ax – to bust through a commercial door and the “Braille” method location of a victim in a pitch black room filled with thick smoke.

Roof Ops followed, led by Stratford Lt. Sean McKenney and Firefighter Bryan Williams, who led the way up a 100-foot truck-mounted ladder to a rooftop. “The job of the suppression crew is to open up the highest point of a structure, to help lift the smoke inside, prevent flashover, reduce property damage and save lives,” McKenney said. Ventilation was performed using a circular or vent saw.

Here again, available resources were at issue. “A properly staffed ladder company should have a minimum of four men,” said Williams. “We’re operating with two to three, risking injury to firefighters, forcing time constraints, preventing the saving of lives and allowing greater property damage.”

The Extrication station, led chiefly by Stratford Firefighter Doug Ashe, focused on the safe removal of a victim from a vehicle in a serious accident scenario. “We assume spinal injuries, so it’s safer to remove the car from around the person than to remove the person from the car,” said Ashe.

Using irons to break and remove glass, a hydraulic-driven spreader to pop doors off hinges and a powerful pruner to cut through roof posts, the task is accomplished. Ashe noted that frequent changes in chassis reinforcement, live wires and airbags requires continual training.

There was one clear takeaway from the morning: these guys are passionate about their occupation and consider it their calling. “I feel I was put on this planet to do this job. You have to be passionate about it,” said Stratford Lt. Stephen O’Hara. Said another, Stratford Firefighter Roy Minton, “This was the best decision I ever made. Sometimes you really have an impact on someone’s life.”