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100 degrees, 80% humidity, turnout gear, and tear gas -- Training Wednesday was TOUGH

By Andrew Pollack on 08/04/2006 at 04:47 PM EDT

On Wednesday of this week I took the day off work to organize the “Roll-Up Scenarios” class for the Cumberland Fire Department “Explorer” Academy 2006. The academy is 5 days where kids participating in the “Explorer Scouts” program from six nearby towns live at the station and learn all aspects of firefighting as a career. Wednesday was the fourth day, and time to put all the skills they’ve gotten so far into practice. “Roll-Up Scenarios” is an all day class where the kids go through six “evolutions” which simulate a fire scene from first arrival to safe termination of command.

It went “mostly well”.

This is the first time I’ve run the program, and there were a few things I wanted to do differently. Rather than focus on making the scene as realistic as possible, I wanted to make sure each group got to try each job and that those jobs were done in a way that was both practical and realistic on its own – without having to worry about the timing overall or the way a scene might develop. In the past, instructors had set things up so that at the start of each evolution the kids were already in gear and in place at the station they’d be working from – Attack line, Backup line, Ladder Company, Search & Rescue, and RIT/Rehab. The problem with this is it doesn’t simulate the confused but methodical process of getting yourself and your stuff together to do a job. To some extent, that’s half the battle. What I did was to start each evolution with the kids in their street clothes, organized by group by not knowing to which station they were assigned. The scenario started with the “dispatch” of the call, and as each group reported “on scene” they were at that time assigned a task, and to get their gear on and gather the equipment needed to perform their task. Then, each group operated independent of the others to do their job under the guidance and instruction of a fire officer at that station. While it’s true that this was much less realistic than having an actual scenario play out, they still got to put their gear on (plus blindfolds since we didn’t want to run smoke machines) and advance lines, perform searches, and do their jobs. The feedback from the kids and instructors was excellent. They all noticed the difference and the focus it took to go from “not ready” to doing the job.

There were a few problems, however.

First, it was hot -- the hottest day of the year so far, and the hottest day in several years. It was also humid. Basically, we’re talking nearly 100 degrees and fog. Not quite fog, but damn close. To mitigate heat worries, I took the following steps:

1. I appointed the most senior officer available – a training officer from Kennebunk – to be the “Safety Officer” for the day. His word was declared to be final.
2. I assigned all the available EMS people to watch each part of the training, and gave them authority to halt anything or pull anyone at any time.
3. Each student was told they were required to drink 20 ounces of water after each round of the training.
4. No students were required to wear turnout gear or air packs. Safety glasses and gloves were considered acceptable.
5. Any student was required to sit out any round in which they felt overheated.
6. No student was to be in turnout gear prior to being assigned to a task, and immediately following that round of the drill all students were to remove their turnout gear prior to cleanup. Cleaning up, re-packing hose lines, etc. would all be done in street clothes.
7. We used a powerful fan with a mist spray of water to blow somewhat cooler air across the work area.

This strategy worked great all morning. We did have a couple of people complaining that their eyes were irritated up in the training house second floor, so we established a big PPV (positive pressure ventilation) fan at the front door of the structure and opened a window upstairs to clear any old smoke from the facility. We kept the fan going all day. This also reduced heat buildup in the structure.

After lunch, the heat built quickly and in the first evolution (the third for the day) we had first one and then a second student wilt under the heat. EMS was assigned and the training was stopped. As people were cooling off, a third kid didn’t look good so he was added to the EMS list.

One of the three students did not seem to be snapping back well at all, and was transported to the local hospital (where she was later released and joined us for dinner). It turned out she has fairly serious asthma – which we’d dealt with before.

What we didn’t know was that a few weeks ago, the facility had been used by some Police officers for their own training. We were not told this prior to our using the building, but after the fact found out they had used Tear Gas and Pepper Spray in the building. I can’t know for sure that this was the case, and I cannot be at all sure how much residue was in the building, however this would explain the minor skin irritations some instructors mentioned by the end of the day, why some people’s eyes were burning, and why this poor kid who was doing fine just locked up as soon as EMS took her mask off. I’m glad she’s all right. As you can imagine, we will follow up with the people who are responsible for the site to find out what really went on and if it was not cleaned up properly.

Obviously, with three students having difficulty with the heat – one potentially serious – it was time to call a halt to the day. The rest of the kids were ok with that, but a bit disappointed. Most of them were fine, having been careful with the heat and drinking plenty of water.

I decided to move all the students into the trucks to sit in the air conditioning while the instructors did the clean up. The clean up took about an hour with just the adults doing it – and for the first time that day I got pretty hot while loading hose lines back onto trucks. A couple of the kids didn’t really like this. They’ve been taught that it’s not the job of the instructors to do this kind of clean up. One of the older girls – a student from Freeport – actually had to be ordered into the truck.

Overall, the training was considered good – even by the three kids who had trouble. The 17 year old boy who been the third to do down actually came up and shook my hand after the training when we were all at the station to say thank you.

From a safety perspective, I’m satisfied that we did what we could to make the event safe. We did have some difficulties, but they were spotted quickly by people assigned to that task, and appropriate attention was given immediately to ensure there were no serious problems.

For those of you unfamiliar with the fire service, I hope this gives you a feeling for the level of work and dedication.

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