Preparedness & Recovery

Firefighters Conduct Training at Skagit Habitat for Humanity Property

'They will struggle because this house was built with tough (material) and they will have a hard time punching through the roof.'

by Aaron Weinberg, Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash. / August 9, 2017
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(TNS) - Wearing respirators and full protective gear, Sedro-Woolley firefighters James Boze and Ryan Morgan knelt in the grass Monday night at the rear entrance of a dilapidated and smoke-filled house.

As the two prepared to enter the house, another pair of firefighters stood on the roof. Sparks flew as one used a power saw to cut a ventilation hole through the rusted metal roof.

“They will struggle because this house was built with tough (material) and they will have a hard time punching through the roof,” Battalion Chief Gerald Chandler said.

The scene was part of a Sedro-Woolley Fire Department training exercise made possible by Skagit Habitat for Humanity.

The old one-story house and two others adjacent to it were recently purchased by Skagit, Wash., Habitat for Humanity, which helps put low-income families into new homes. The organization offered the homes to the fire department to be used in two training exercises.

Afterward, Skagit Habitat for Humanity will demolish the houses, making way for four new ones, Executive Director Teresa Pugh said.

Chandler said the fire department jumped at the chance to use the houses for training.

“We usually do it at our own training site,” Chandler said. “It’s getting more and more rare to get an opportunity to train on donated buildings. We really like that type of training because it’s closer to real life.”

Half of the department’s 44 firefighters took part in the training Monday night. The other half will train at another of the houses in about two weeks.

During the training, firefighters practiced several tasks, including finding a water supply for hoses, ventilating the house to prevent a deadly back draft and conducting interior search and rescue operations.

The department opted not to burn the house, and instead used a fog machine to simulate smoke.

During the training session, about a dozen nearby residents gathered around the property to watch, including Rae Ammons and Ed Macagba.

“It’s better than watching TV,” Ammons said.

Mark Felton, who sold the houses to Skagit Habitat for Humanity, also mingled in the crowd, taking photos. He said his family had owned the properties since the 1920s.

“I couldn’t take care of the houses anymore,” he said. “They need immense upgrades and I didn’t have the finances. I’m on a fixed income and disabled and it was a lot of work to take care of it all.”

Felton said he was happy when Habitat for Humanity bought the properties, knowing that the organization would help four families become first-time homeowners.

“They said they would give families a new start, so I figured that’s the way to go,” he said. “It will still be bittersweet when they tear them down though ... I’ve always lived here. I took care of family members here until they passed.”

Chandler said the fire department welcomes spectators during live training exercises. He said it’s an opportunity to show the safety precautions taken by firefighters.

“During a real fire, people often stand by and yell at us, ‘Why are you breaking the windows?’” he said. “It’s all for our safety.”

After punching through the roof to create ventilation, smoke slowly drifting up through the hole.

Chandler said smoke from the fog machine provides good, safe training because it creates nearly zero visibility inside the house similar to real smoke. But, he said, it doesn’t behave exactly the same.

“If this house was filled with super-heated gas and smoke, that would actually just roll out of the roof like a tornado,” he said. “If you were inside, you could watch the smoke level come up. It would get to the point where you could actually probably crouch to find your way around.”

As Boze and Morgan entered the house, they crawled through the thick smoke and felt the walls in search of a dummy to rescue.

A few minutes later, firefighter Bobby Castilleja emerged from the rear entrance hauling a 175-pound dummy as he breathed loudly through his respirator.

“Radio command and let them know you got them out,” a nearby firefighter said to Castilleja.

Amanda Barclay, who set up the smoke machine before the fire trucks rolled up, recently graduated from a fire science program and said she was excited to get into the house for the exercise.

“In this business we have a lot of really experienced people that have been in the business for a ton of years,” she said. “Then you have people like me who are brand new that haven’t gone through any training ... This is very important.”

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©2017 the Skagit Valley Herald (Mount Vernon, Wash.)

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