Trailer's smoke and fire help train Mo. firefighters

By Susan Weich
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.
All Rights Reserved 

O'FALLON, Mo. — A new two-story trailer with a control room that creates clouds of thick black smoke and fuels fires that heat up to 350 degrees will give firefighters a safer way to prepare for the real thing, officials say. The PRO-SAFE Mobile Burn Training Unit provides dozens of scenarios for fires, hazardous material incidents, search and rescues and confined space rescues for firefighting crews.

The trailer cost $334,000 — 80 percent of which was paid for by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The unit can be set up and ready for training in under two hours. The fires that burn inside the trailer are fueled by a 200-gallon propane system. The smoke machine is nitrogen-powered, making for an odorless, cleaner vapor. The unit also features five safety shutoff switches in case firefighters experience a problem.

In the past, firefighters often trained for fires at buildings set for demolition. But strict regulations by the Department of Natural Resources and concerns for firefighter safety have made that option less desirable, said Scott Avery, spokesman for the O'Fallon Fire Protection District.

Other training facilities, like the one at AmerenUE in St. Louis County, burn straw as the heat source, so the fire doesn't get very hot, and the experience is not as realistic, he said.

So last year, O'Fallon applied for a grant for the trailer with movable walls, doors, fire elements and metal silhouettes of a bed, couch and stove.

O'Fallon is the only fire district in the metro area to own one of the high-tech units. The trailer will be available to firefighters from all over the St. Louis area as well as the state.

And the unit recently generated some international buzz when firefighters from Panama toured the trailer and donned gear to experience what it could do. The bomberos (Spanish for firefighters) were visiting the state as part of an informational exchange with the Missouri National Guard.

"The advantages this trailer will have on firefighter safety are going to be enormous," Avery said. "We're going to be able to train for situations we've never been able to practice before."

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