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Midway Fire: Where there’s smoke crews train for fires

By James Williamson
Coastal Observer

It’s a two story house, cars are in the driveway, the newspaper still sits on the porch and the family’s asleep upstairs. Do the firefighters attack the fire first or rescue the family? That was just one of the scenarios during Midway Fire and Rescue’s recent training.

“We all know what the book says and reality are two different animals,” said Capt. Joe Ruffennach, who has been with Midway for 17 years. “It’s a hard decision to make whether to put suppression water on the fire or risk one of us. That’s what we’re trying to get the newer ones who are going up for officers to make that decision. There’s no right or wrong answer.”

Wooden pallets and damp hay were used to produce smoke inside two Connex shipping containers that Midway uses as “burn boxes.” They are stacked to simulate two floors. The heat can reach 800 degrees.

The burn boxes are home to the manikins, a family of four. They were hidden in the structure. The daughter spent the night at a neighbor’s house, a challenge for firefighters looking for four people. They found three mannequins but searched as if there was a fourth before the fire could spread.

Not all the scenarios were so complicated. “We looked at how the smoke and heat travels. The guys need to know how fast conditions can change and if I see this then I need to bail out,” Ruffennach said.

While putting out the fire, firefighters are logged into a computer monitoring system that keeps track of their respirators. “If I see low PSI, I can hit a button that says, ‘You’re low on air for safety,’ ” said Capt. Brent McClellan, who was in command during one scenario. The indicator alerts the firefighter’s console.

The system replaces bells on the air packs that used to go off like alarm clocks when air ran low. Technology has put an end to the days of what the crews call “Cowboy firemen.”

“We got a new contract for protective clothing,” said Assistant Fire Chief Jim Crawford. “We bought the Cadillac of protective clothing. These guys are getting an opportunity to see how the gear works in the heat.”

In two weeks of training last month, crews ran three scenarios a day, each about 20 minutes. Overtime paramedics were brought in to cover any medical calls so that training would not be disrupted.

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From a mile away the first fire truck made the choice to go directly to the Connex boxes and run off its 750 gallon tank of water while the second stopped at the hydrant. Though, in real life this would have not been the case explained Ruffenach.

 “That first fire truck would have picked up that hydrant. We would’ve done rescue and established a water supply and dropped that line. Then this crew could’ve just pulled up and gone right off to it,” he said. Two ladders leaned up against the boxes as plumes of smoke wafted.

“For the primary rescue they’re going to hit it hard, hit it fast and look for the common areas that someone would be. A call at 7 in the morning, cars in the driveway, the newspaper’s still there. It’s more than likely they’re upstairs in their room. It would be a decision that that company officer would make and he would go OK, where are people normally in their room? Usually in their bed, by the window or the door,” he said.

As one team tackles the fire, another will do a secondary search. “Lift the beds and clean out the closets and thoroughly search the room and move on to the next room,” Ruffenach said.

A third crew will cut a hole in the roof to ventilate the structure.

“In today’s scenario we’re confining them to X Y and not adding Z. Next time we’ll add the Z. They’ll run through this and we’ll throw the roof in there,” Ruffenach said.

The Connex boxes are also used for training without smoke or fire. “When we get the new guys we can teach them rescue techniques without the smoke. We put a hood over their face so that they can’t see anything and they’re learning the same thing,” said Ruffenach.

The set up can be altered and Midway intends to place a box on end to simulate an elevator. Before acquiring the containers, Midway practiced fire simulation in Murrells Inlet, North Myrtle Beach and Johnsonville.

“We set these things up for our fire district while others might have something else they might deal with,” Ruffenach said.

After the haggard manikins were rescued, the firefighters shed their equipment and hold an informal review. “A lot of times it’s not about doing something wrong, it’s that you made a decision and that was the best you thought to make,” said Ruffennach. “When you have time to sit back and look at the thing in hindsight you think maybe you’re right, I should’ve pulled the hose line that way or should’ve only put one ladder up.

“Every fire has their own hiccups or problems that you’re going to have to overcome. You take the fire source away, you don’t have a fire. That’s the basics of our job.”

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