Firefighters hone rooftop skills

Building slated for destruction serves as classroom for safety in South Sound

ckrotzer@theolympian.comDecember 6, 2012 

With a quick yank and a rev to the engine, firefighters got to work Wednesday morning, using a chain saw to slice holes in the roof of the former IBM building on the Capital Campus in Olympia.

On the second of three training days, crews from Olympia, Lacey and a handful from Gig Harbor honed their skills in opening roofs – a technique known as vertical ventilation that allows built-up heat, smoke and flames to escape from burning buildings.

“It creates a safer interior for firefighters, increases the survivability for people who could be trapped inside and decreases the hostile fire inside,” said Olympia Fire Department Lt. Todd Carson, a trainer in vertical ventilation.

It’s a skill that offers few realistic training opportunities for firefighters beyond an actual fire, especially in the case of a commercial building, such as the IBM building off Maple Park Avenue and Capitol Way.

The two-story, 14,200-square-foot building is set to be demolished. Before it is completely taken down, the state Department of Enterprise Services offered it to local fire departments for training.

The building will be torn down as soon as next week. The remaining lot will be filled and covered with grass, said Jim Erskine, Enterprise Services spokesperson.

Most fire crews are familiar with tearing open the roof of a house — the most common structure fire. Commercial building fires are less frequent and require familiarity with different kinds of materials, Carson said.

Olympia and Lacey fire crews have access to prop roofs at the new Mark Noble Regional Fire Training Center off Fones Road, but the mock roofs don’t have the types of insulation found in many of downtown Olympia’s older buildings.

“It’s a unique construction style,” Carson said. “… We call it a conventional style roof that is hard to mimic in a prop setting with the insulation membrane and construction. It would be way too expensive.”

Carson and a fellow trainer, Lacey Fire District 3’s Lt. Ryan Cox, were leading crews through the steps for safely accessing a roof during a fire.

Groups wearing bunker gear and carrying their full air supply climb the two-story building from the ground using the truck ladder, just as they would in a live-fire situation.

After scaling the building, fire crews carefully make their way, stabbing the roof with a long metal pole dubbed a “rubbish hook” to test the roof’s integrity.

“They want to make sure it doesn’t fall through,” Olympia Deputy Fire Chief Pat Dale said.

Firefighters then use the chain saw to cut out small sections of the roof, searching for the main area of the fire. Once that is found, crews get to work cutting back larger sections that, in a live situation, would release the heat and smoke.

“If you see guys struggling, what could you do to go in and make things easier?” Carson asked the firefighters as they tried to push the cut up sections of roof through.

“Cut in more dices,” one answered, and then picked up a chain saw and started slicing away more sections of the roof.

The training was mostly a refresher, but it also was a reminder of how physically demanding roof access can be.

“It’s the reality of how tough it is and how labor intensive,” Olympia firefighter Tim Reynolds said. “Training on props goes by a lot faster.”

The training also provided another opportunity for the local crews to train together; they often respond together to reported fires. Crews will continue practicing today, both on the roof and inside, working on forced entry.

Chelsea Krotzer; 360-754-5476 @chelseakrotzer

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