Firefighters turn building into training playground
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – “Be sure to wipe your shoes,” acting Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson joked as a dozen or so firefighters made their way from the lobby of the old Glenwood Springs Post Independent building up the stairs to the second floor mezzanine.
To which this reporter replied, “No worries, we never asked anyone to do that when we were in here.”
The former PI building at 2014 Grand Ave. is a gutted, battered, cluttered, smoked-out, bombed-out (literally in some places) shell of the former newspaper quarters.
Designed by local architect Dean Moffatt, the front section of the building housed the former Glenwood Post offices from the late 1970s through the Post’s 2000 merger with the former Glenwood Independent.
It continued to serve as home to the Post Independent until last fall, when the paper’s parent company, Swift Communications, sold the building and surrounding property to FirstBank Holding Co.
The Post Independent offices are now located at 824 Grand Ave. in downtown Glenwood Springs. FirstBank is preparing to demolish the old building later this month to make way for a new bank building.
In the meantime, the unique commercial structure has served as a valuable training ground for area fire departments, the Glenwood Springs Police Department and the Garfield County Sheriff’s All Hazards Response Team to conduct a variety of drills.
On Tuesday, 17 firefighters from the Glenwood Springs, Burning Mountains and Rifle fire departments took part in an actual live fire drill. It was the second such drill this week, after one was conducted on Sunday as well.
“We have the opportunity today to take our time to make sure things are done correctly, so that when we do it for real it comes natural to us,” Glenwood Springs Fire Capt. Pete Bradshaw explains during a predrill building walk-through.
Throughout the building are leftover remnants of earlier drills – a blown-out wall section here, a smashed-in door there.
For Tuesday’s drill, a small upstairs office has been prepared for fire. Once ignited, it will be allowed to spread within the contained area before teams of firefighters will take turns attacking it via the back entrance with fire hoses, axes and other equipment.
“This is not trickery,” Bradshaw assures the trainees during the final instructions. “We’re not here to trick you, we’re not here to try to make you fail. We’re here to make you succeed.”
Likewise, “We’re also not in here to melt our helmets or dis-shape our shields, or anything like that,” he warns.
And, with a final “Please don’t get hurt,” the drill is on.
Modern fire department training is regulated by National Fire Protection Association safety standards, Chief Tillotson explained.
“We have to follow strict rules for live fire drills,” he said. “We were lucky to have several months to work with this building before it was scheduled to be demolished.”
For live fire drills, any rooms that are to be set on fire basically have to be reconstructed so as to keep the fire contained to that room, he said.
“All the furniture, drapes and glass has to be removed … all those things that have proven to be a safety hazard for firefighters in the past,” Tillotson said.
About 10 to 15 minutes after the fire has been set inside the building, smoke is visible rolling out from the boarded-up window and through the roof.
“We wait until we get the right conditions, with poor visibility and high heat,” Tillotson says.
Three firefighters are on the ignition crew and monitor the fire’s progress inside the building, while another crew of three firefighters waits to advance the hose into the building.
Yet another team of three firefighters is on safety standby in front of the building, prepared to take a second hose in if needed.
Called the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT), the standby crew is also equipped with backup air supply for the firefighters inside the building in case they get into trouble. Each firefighter’s respirator unit is equipped with a special alarm that sounds if they stay motionless for 45 seconds.
“That lets us know they’re trapped or unconscious,” Tillotson says. “The alarm helps us locate them.”
Another crew of EMS personnel is also stationed in the parking lot, again for safety reasons.
Glenwood Fire Engineer Steve Sandoval was on the second attack crew Tuesday. This wasn’t his first time doing a drill of this sort, but the old PI building provided a unique experience.
Inside, the crews were able to use a thermal imagery camera to view the smoke layering and serve as their eyes in the smoke-filled hallway leading to the fire room.
“This is a great chance to show some of the newer people how a fire progresses, and how the smoke layers during different stages,” Sandoval said. “You definitely need a lot of water for a fire like this. In a real fire, you can tend to skip some steps, but this lets us take the time to be careful and remember everything we have to do.”
At age 29 and going on four years with the Glenwood Fire Department, firefighter-paramedic Travis Rohe is still considered a rookie.
“Fire is a high risk, low frequency part of our job,” Rohe said. “There are a lot of things you can’t simulate in training. This is the real deal, but in a very controlled, safe environment.
“It’s absolutely one of the most valuable things we can do in terms of training,” he said.
Likewise for Glenwood volunteer firefighter Wendy Underwood, who has also been with the Glenwood department for about four years.
“This was a really good experience with a smaller fire,” she said. “It gives us an opportunity to practice our teamwork and communication.”
And it’s good to stay in practice when a real fire comes along.
“Unfortunately for Glenwood and for all of us, we do have the occasional fire call,” Underwood said.
But the training and drills like the one Tuesday will help Underwood and her fellow firefighters be ready to limit the damage and save lives when a fire call does come in, she said.
“All of these firefighters have probably seen a real fire in their day,” Bradshaw adds. “But we really only respond to about three or four per year.
“This is more a drill than a training,” he said. “Most of this is stuff we’ve already been trained at and should know. This is just practice.”
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