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Fire drill: Former medical clinic becomes a training ground

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

You’re trapped. It’s pitch black. Smoke scratches your eyes and lungs. It’s hot, you’re drenched in sweat. Fire’s beating at the door, calling your name. What do you do?

Boom! Go through the wall, of course.

Almost 60 firefighters and volunteers from Midway Fire and Rescue practiced for this situation and more this week. The old Smith Medical Clinic building was donated for the fire department’s training.

“It’s breaching walls,” Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said. “It’s not really something you get to do every day, and this is sort of the perfect scenario.”

The firefighters work 24 hours on duty followed by 48 hours off duty. The three-day training was designed to allow everyone, including the department chaplain, to have a chance to run the scenarios and practice.

“I’ve been once already,” the Rev. Wil Keith, Midway’s chaplain, said. “I’ll go in a couple more times.” As the rector of Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, he played a big part in coordinating the use of the building.

“It’s a joy to give that to them,” he said. “This way the building gets to give the community one last gift.”

The department designed several scenarios. Each one concentrated on search and rescue, breaching walls and putting out fires. They didn’t actually set the building on fire, though. For the safety of the firefighters, during training exercises the building must be maintained structurally.

“We don’t want it to look like something terrible happened,” he said.

Firefighter Chris Holmes exited the part of the building that was filled with smoke in full gear carrying a charged hose. He used it to put out the fire inside.

“Simulated fire,” he said.

The building will be torn down eventually. It’s been vacant since January when the clinic moved to its new facility across the street. The inside was stripped. Habitat for Humanity took anything that could be sold at its ReStore.

“The guys did a walk through, the planning team, and decided what sort of training could be done on the building,” Keith said.

For search and rescue, the firefighters rescue a 175-pound dummy instead of a real person. For training it helps to not use real people as victims because they might get hurt and they tend to try to help the rescuer.

“The dummy can actually be a little bit more challenging,” Eggiman said.

Each house-fire call the department makes has an aspect of search to it, provided they make it to the interior of the structure. Whether searching for flames to douse, safe passage or victims, it’s all part of the job. It’s tough to predict how often each type of call will happen.

“I’ve seen us go to one or two a month, I remember several years ago in DeBordieu we were there constantly,” Eggiman said.

Midway wants to be ready for anything at any time. “We have a tremendous wildland urban interface in our area,” Eggiman said.

Since the department is the first response for Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park, they are all trained in basic wildland fire containment. There are a “half dozen or so” firefighters on the wildland team and two who attended federal wildland training Florida. The training makes the firefighters a valuable asset around the state and country. The Upstate dealt with devastating fires in November, and Midway responded.

“We sent a [breathing] apparatus and four guys up there,” Eggiman said.

At Pinnacle Mountain, they spent four days, daylight to dark, cutting trees and digging fire lines. It was valuable experience, he said. Valuable like the training done a little closer to home this week.

“The time to first experience breaching a wall, the time you really don’t want to have to do that is in the heat of the moment,” Eggiman said. No pun intended.

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