Fla. firefighters use training tower to prepare for real thing

Copyright 2005 Times Publishing Company 

St. Petersburg Times
LARGO, Fla. - Smoke spewed from the windows of the four-story building. Donning masks and air tanks, three firefighters climbed the stairwell, searching for a man trapped on the third floor.

Through the haze, Lt. Keith Hatten used a thermal imager to search for the heat. Outside, a crew found a hydrant and boosted the water pressure. Inside, firefighters Pat Gansert and Mike Brownlee manned the hose.

As the smoke cleared, a limp figure appeared on a couch.

"Water on the fire!" Hatten called over his portable radio. "We have a victim."

This time, everyone was okay.

The billowing smoke came from a theatrical machine. The victim was a dummy fashioned from worn-out fire hoses. And the building was one of the department's newest training tools, a $280,000 steel tower on a 10-acre site on 16th Avenue SE.

On Wednesday, eight firefighters from Largo Fire Rescue Station 41 attacked a make-believe fire, training to fight the real thing.

With four stories and a fabricated penthouse, the tower is equipped for countless training scenarios.

The structure is equipped with interior stairwells, exterior stairs, landings, balconies, ladders, attic space and rooftop rappelling rings for technical rescue drills.

Most of the tower, purchased from WHP Trainingtowers, is suited for fake smoke, but the building also has a combustible burn room so firefighters can attack real fires fueled by wood or straw. The room is outfitted with panels that can withstand continuous temperatures of at least 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Besides the tower, the property, purchased by Largo in 2002, has training areas simulating rooftop rescues and explosions in confined spaces.

More than half of the department's approximately 120 firefighters have visited the tower since the department started using it in October.

The department manages six fire stations, plus Belleair Bluffs' one-station department, which also serves the town of Belleair.

Each Largo firefighter will average at least three hours a month at the training site, which supplements hazardous materials training, technical rescue preparation, continuing medical education and other training programs.

In the past, Largo Fire Rescue booked training time at towers in St. Petersburg and Clearwater and honed skills at a new Pinellas County training center run by St. Petersburg College.

"We would have to borrow time and go to different areas," fire Chief Jeff Bullock said. "Now, we can get our units and train with short notice."

And Largo residents may reap another benefit from the new facility, officials said. Fire crews will be training nearby when emergencies arise, said Division Chief Jeff Day, who is in charge of training and safety for the department.

"If something were to happen within the city, we can break down and go to it if needed," Day said.

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