By Joseph Robertia
As the call came in Saturday morning, everything started to roll — fire engines, tanker trucks, a ladder track and all the associated firemen, fully clad in oxygen tanks and their head-to-toe protective gear.
“It’s a full response,” said Gordon Orth, assistant fire chief at Central Emergency Services in Soldotna.
Not even minutes, but seconds, later, the blur of red flashing lights arrived at an eight-plex apartment building on Birch Street behind KeyBank and the Moose is Loose bakery in Soldotna. No flames could be seen, but thick plumes of smoke were rising from around the door at the far end of the building. The crews sprang into action, running numerous, long water hoses as thick as a man’s arm, then the crews split up for a multipronged attack on the blaze.
Firefighters broke down the front door and released a large belch of black smoke. Down on their hands and knees to avoid standing in the rising heat, they crawled into the apartment looking for injured victims.
Another firefighter went around the back of the complex and broke out a back window with a long pole with a hook on the end. Still others scrambled across a ladder extended from a fire engine to the roof. Once on the roof one used a chainsaw to begin tearing through the roof like it was his life, not just the lives of those possibly trapped inside, he was attempting to save.
Luckily, there was no one needing rescue, as the fire and fire department’s response was a drill conducted for practice. Watching from a safe distance, though, it was tough for the dozens of onlookers who gathered to watch the dramatic proceedings to believe this was just practice.
“We’re doing several of these drills,” said Brad Nelson, CES safety officer. “Dragging hoses, breaching through walls, venting through the roof, we’re doing everything you could think of except lighting a fire.”
The fire was a simulation, the smoke generated by artificial means, but the apartment building
was real, though now empty, which afforded the firefighters — and, later in the week, police officers — training in a real, lived-in structure.
“Having a real building like this for training is invaluable, so we’ll be running as many people through these drills as possible. We’ll have 33 career staff go through, and we’re hoping for roughly 35 call-ins to go through, too,” Nelson said.
The use of the apartment building came by way of the owners, realtors Steve and Jim Stenga. Jim Stenga said that, since the building was scheduled for demolition, offering it up to firefighters and police officers for training seemed liked a useful community service.
“It seemed like the perfect opportunity to give back to the people who protect us,” Stenga said said.
Josh Thompson, an engineer with CES, was the firefighter buzzing through the roof with a saw. He said it was a much different training drill than he typically participated in at the CES facility on Mackey Lake Road, where firefighting agencies have arranged large, steel Connexes into a structure where they run simulations.
Made of metal, the Connexes have the advantage that intensely hot fires can safely be generated within them, but they aren’t easy to move and don’t offer the opportunity to chop or cut through them — skills that could be needed in a structure fire of a home or building.
“It was great to be able to cut through a real roof, and be in an environment we weren’t familiar
with. We know the Connexes like the back of our hand. This was something new and really made us think, which was great since we’re always trying to do everything to the best of our ability,” Thompson said.
CES Capt. Terry Bookey directed and oversaw much of the response at the mock fire, and said after running several different drills that he liked what he saw from his crewmembers.
“It was a great day of training and we are very grateful to the Stenga brothers to have had the opportunity. We responded just as we would to a real call, and everyone did just what we hoped and expected they would,” he said.
Bookey, like Thompson, said that the ability to contend with real walls, floors, ceilings and other common home-building materials afforded an unparalleled training experience.
“The real application of forcing in a door — a real door, not one made for simulations, and knocking through drywall with insulation, wood and construction behind it, it’s much more applicable to what we would do in a real-world fire. We were able to break real glass windows to practice coordinated efforts for directing fire based on ventilation. Everyone really learned a lot,” he said.
And, like most things in life, the more practice put in, the better everyone will respond to a real event.
“This gets our response pretty well-tuned,” Bookey said. “The frequency of structure fires is minimal, but we still have to have our A game ready for when one does happen.”