MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, SC -- It is 3 a.m., and the neighbors have placed a call for help. Heavy smoke was seen pouring from 1385 Dove Lane. A family of five, one an infant, may be trapped inside. There are two cars in the driveway and no time to lose - even though this is only a drill.
Firefighters from the Air Station Fire Department and Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting joined forces to conduct scenario-based drills July 20-21 in Laurel Bay. The exercises were held as part of the fire department’s quarterly drills.
On the evening of July 21, the teams battled the 100-degree heat of the day and a simulated structural fire with entrapment.
“We’re out here to practice our structural fire fighting skills,” said Jim Bundo, an Air Station firefighter. “We’re not fair weather firefighters. Yeah we’re hot, and we’ll get wet and dirty, but that’s the nature of the job.”
After the pre-exercise safety brief, the two engines headed toward different locations, and waited for the call to respond. Once the firefighters arrived on the scene again, the casual climate that existed prior to the exercise changed to an atmosphere of focus and professionalism. There was now a family and property to save. It was go-time for the firefighters.
“Temperature, weather conditions and chaos,” said James Bollack, the fire chief for the Air Station Fire Department. “We want this to be as real as possible.”
After simulating a forced entry, the firefighters entered the home. Smoke billowed from the doorway and hung thick and heavy inside the home. The fire alarm beeped incessantly. The firefighters dropped down on all fours and made their way inside to begin the search for occupants.
“They crouch down like that because heat rises, and it reaches about 1,000 degrees and up at the ceiling,” Bollack said. “Throw that on top of a 100 degree day and about 50 pounds of gear, and you’ve got 20-30 minutes of working time. Then they’re done. That’s for physically fit people with no health conditions.”
Heat is a major factor when it comes to causing injuries during actual fires, according to Bollack.
“The core temperature of the body is 98.6,” Bollack said. “The gear is so well insulated that as soon as you put it on, your core temperature begins to rise. After 20-30 minutes of rigorous activity the core temperature rises to 102 degrees.”
The rise in a firefighter’s core temperature is significant enough for the body to require time to rehabilitate, according to Bollack.
Teams of two alternated between resting and entering the home. Their red faces, heavy breathing and streaming sweat were testaments of the toll that heat takes on a firefighter’s body.
The entire exercise, from response to retrieval, took just over 17 minutes. However, the drill was only a small part of a much larger structural firefighting picture. An actual fire would require things like a ventilation team, multiple egress points and water, according to Bollack.
“This is realistic, but we’re only focusing on a specific area,” Bollack said. “The search and recovery portion is only about 20 percent of the puzzle.”
Air Station firefighters conduct quarterly drills and train each day to practice techniques that may save lives and protect property aboard Fighter town or Laurel Bay.
“Being out here is just pure training and learning,” said Lance Cpl. Lucas Peters, a firefighter with the Air Station Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting. “So everything operates smoothly if something real happens.”
Training is an essential part of the firefighter’s job, according to Bundo.
“This is where we can learn and refine our skills,” Bundo said. “This is the place to make mistakes and to get better.”
Mistakes are an important part of the training process, according to Bollack.
“We do this here to make mistakes, so that we don’t make them in real life situations,” Bollack said. “That way we don’t lose our victims, and we don’t lose our people.”
Training in the housing area provides firefighters with more of a real-life scenario, but it also gives them a chance to enhance public relations, according to Bundo.
“A lot of guys do this for the love of the job,” Bundo said. “It’s good for people to see us out here.”
Making the fire department’s presence known in the community is important, according to Bollack.
“People need to know we’re here to help,” Bollack said. “It’s as simple as a phone call.”