Region’s firefighters look to Olympia

New Training facility: It’s where they can practice survival and firefighting skills on a real-life stage

ckrotzer@theolympian.comNovember 17, 2012 

Olympia fire Lt. Jason Waters secured a red hook to the sill of a third-story window before taking a breath and going over the edge.

The window was already broken through and glass cleared.

The firefighter crawled over the sill, putting his full weight against the open-ended hook, dubbed “the last-ditch anchor,” and started to make his way down the side of the six-story building to the ground.

In this instance, it was training. Waters had a blue belay line ready to catch in case the sill hook failed.

In a real-life scenario, having to bail out of a window would mean Waters had no other option to survive.

“This is my worst-case, last means of egress here,” he said.

Waters was performing one of several training exercises Friday afternoon at the Olympia Fire Department’s newest training facility, the Mark Noble Regional Fire Training Center.

The facility is on an 8-acre lot off Fones Road in Olympia, tucked behind The Home Depot. It was named after the department’s only firefighter to die in the line of duty.

Noble died from a line-of-duty-related brain cancer in January 2005.

The center was built thanks to a $16.5 million bond approved by Olympia voters. In 2008, that covered construction of the training campus, Olympia Fire Station 4 off Stoll Road, and the purchase of two fire engines and a tiller ladder truck.

“Firefighters of Olympia are really grateful the citizens were supportive of passing that bond and we could have that facility,” Assistant Fire Chief Pat Dale said.

Of the $16.5 million bond, $9 million went to the construction of the training center, which features three buildings: a six-story commercial tower, a two-story apartment building, and a new incident command training center.

The existing incident command training center was built in 2007, off Boulevard Road. Computer simulation equipment used for training at that facility is being moved to the Fones Road campus and will be up and running by the end of the year, Dale said.

The city eventually will sell the Boulevard Road site. It’s the only incident command training center in the state, Dale said, attracting training commanders from fire departments nationwide.

The six-story tower hosts the facility’s only live-fire scenario: a restaurant kitchen. Dale said that in the future, firefighters would like to add a second fire prop to the second story of the structure, as well as an additional live-fire prop in the apartment building.

Fire props cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and install. The one in the facility now is propane-powered, operated by a trainer holding a portable remote control.

Using the control, the fire trainer can set off sections of the prop, making the burners light up or a full flash over the area where fire crawls along the ceiling as firefighters enter the room.

The building also fills with artificial smoke, giving firefighters as close to a real-life scenario as possible while trying to navigate a burning building.

The smoke is nontoxic, derived from peanut oil, Dale said.

Crews went through three circuits of live-fire training Friday, working through smoked-out rooms and checking for signs of trapped people before making their way to the burning kitchen.

The exercise takes a matter of minutes to complete, while cleaning up hoses to train again can take more than 30 minutes.

Firefighters also can train with props provided by the International Association of Fire Fighters Fire Ground Survival Program.

The props were created following line-of-duty deaths of firefighters in hopes of giving crews the tools to get out of similar dangerous situations, such as becoming lost, trapped or disoriented.

The Olympia training center is the only facility in the state that has IAFF props, Dale said.

The props available allow firefighters to learn how to maneuver through tangled wires, break through a wall, and cling to the side of a high window where they wait to be rescued.

A firefighter could potentially hang from a window with one foot and one arm inside for five to seven minutes if necessary after making a mayday call.

Firefighters are trained to drop both legs and hang from their arms as they tire so that if they do fall, it creates a shorter fall distance.

The new training grounds offer a place for crews to train with ladder trucks as well. Three wooden mock-roofs constructed at different shapes, heights and widths give firefighters the necessary time to practice correctly cutting holes.

The roofs resemble the different types seen on buildings throughout Olympia and the surrounding area.

“It replicates when firefighters go up on roofs, open up the decks to let heat and smoke rise,” Dale said.

The entire training facility was designed to be a draw to the region.

The Washington administrative code, which dictates requirements for firefighters, soon will require even more live fire training.

Before Olympia acquired its own facility, local fire crews had to travel to the fire academy in North Bend to participate in live-fire training and use local parking lots and condemned homes for other exercises.

“It has been difficult to have consistent opportunities to train, especially with the live fire,” said Steve Brooks, Lacey Fire District 3 chief.

Olympia and Lacey Fire District 3 have an interlocal agreement for the facility, meaning trainers from both agencies can teach other firefighters.

Dale said he hopes crews from all over Thurston, Lewis, Mason, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties and portions of Pierce County will be able to use the facility by 2014.

Opening the facility up to other districts is part of the training center’s sustainability plan. Incoming stations would pay a fee to train, helping recover costs to build the center and pay for future needs.

In addition to providing fire trainers, the Lacey Fire District pays an annual $30,000 fee to use the structure, and also pays for any consumables, such as propane, used on site.

The Tumwater Fire Department is looking to contract with Olympia Fire to train at the center, Dale said.

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 @chelseakrotzer

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