“Drills in the dark” train Southeast firefighters for dangerous missions

Follow along, and see how specialized training keeps Southeast Portland firefighters on their toes, to better save lives …

We used a flash to photograph members of Southeast Portland Fire & Rescue Station 25’s Truck company, in full turnouts and wearing breathing apparatus, crawl through a pitch-dark abandoned factory, in search of a “disabled firefighter”.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Over a dusty, rutted road, Truck 25 – a long, Portland Fire & Rescue ladder rig, based in Southeast Portland, steered around corners by both front and rear drivers – picks its way toward an abandoned factory in Troutdale.

These seasoned firefighters are on their way to a class and training session.

“Today, we’re covering a change in procedure,” Lt. Don Stauffer, Portland Fire and Rescue’s District Training Lieutenant, tells us. Firefighters from three stations gather in the open-air loading dock. Chairs are set up, classroom style, and a white-board is nailed to the building’s chicken-wire and tar-paper wall.

Before the training exercise, Lt. Don Stauffer covers procedure changes and outlines the scenario.

Back to school
Sitting in on the class, we learn the topic is “Air Management” ‚Äì making sure firefighters keep enough air in their breathing tanks to get out of a burning building alive. Stauffer emphasizes the importance of the subject, quoting statistics from the National Fire Protection Association: “More firefighters die from running out of air than die from fire.”

“We’re increasing the amount of reserve air. We now want firefighters to hold 25%, not 10%, of their air in reserve,” he instructs. The crews will conduct their drill under simulated emergency conditions, putting into practice this new procedure. While increasing their safety, the new policy gives firefighters less time to work while having to breathe bottled air.

“In our scenario today,” Stauffer explains, “we have two firefighters down [injured, and running out of bottled air]. To simulate the structure being filled with smoke, we’ll be doing this drill completely in the dark ‚Äì no flashlights. Locate them, get an extra air supply on them, and bring them out to the exit point.”

To help prevent injury, firefighters warm up before suiting up for the drill.

After the formal learning session, firefighters “warm up” by doing stretching exercises, much like athletes before training.

As the firefighters don their turnouts, tanks, and masks, we ask Stauffer why the Fire Bureau didn’t simply send out a memo explaining the new procedure.

Drilling for proficiency
“Even though we do this every day, drilling gets you more proficient,” Stauffer responds. “This means you’ll be able to react more quickly, and make better decisions ‚Äì especially in life-or-death situations. They’re highly skilled already. But simulations help them sharpen their decision-making abilities. To rescue people and save property, firefighters must first themselves stay alive.”

Station 25 firefighters Mike Schultz, Mark Gift, Zach Parrish and Jeremy Paul don their gear and check each other’s equipment before entering the building.

The training team has blacked out the building’s interior. We enter the first floor of the building — originally a wool processing plant — getting ready to photograph the entrance of the crew from Truck 25. After our eyes adjust to the darkness, the only light visible is the dial of the instructor’s wristwatch.

The firefighters enter and begin their drill in complete darkness. A hose line, stretched on the floor, is their only guide as they crawl around obstacles. They follow the hose up a staircase. Within minutes, they come to the aid of their fallen comrade; they successfully complete the drill.

Then, as it happens, within hours of training, the crew of Station 25 was off on a real call, putting to use their newly-honed skills, saving lives and property.

¬© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News

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