MORRIS – Local firefighters crawled through narrow hallways on hands and knees unable to see, feeling their way through a wall before having to shimmy through electrical wires.
Each member shouted out directions to the one behind them, guiding them safely through the hazards.
Luckily, there was no immediate danger, it was all part of a training exercise.
The Morris Fire Protection District recently took advantage of training in the new Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) trailer built by Morris Lt. Rob Blair with money from the Chief Shabbona Fire Association.
“They are going through training on and off using different situations,” Capt. Dave Wiechen said. “It’s a confidence booster.”
The trailer is used by both seasoned fire veterans, as well as new staff as a way to learn to navigate through a house with their breathing packs on, which adds not only bulk to their body, but also has knobs and cords that can get hooked on things in a house as they search.
The firefighters put a wad of waxed paper inside their face shield, rendering them basically sightless as if the building were filled with smoke – the best and safest way to simulate the lack of vision in a fire situation.
They then go in either with a partner or in teams and start the maze inside the semitrailer. The trailer can be changed each time with the shift of a wall or a swing of a door to create a new maze so they don’t grow accustomed to the layout.
Noise is piped in through a sound system to further replicate an actual fire scene, and to raise the heart rate of the trainees to simulate an actual fire.
“Using the trailer helps to keep their skills sharp,” Wiechen said. “It’s tough to get through at times with all the gear on. They have to learn to dump their air pack and put it back on blind so they don’t get caught on stationary items or wires.”
The SCBA trailer training has been going on for several years, but after 10 to 12 years of service, the wear and tear made the old trailer unusable. So they used money set aside from Chief Shabbona Fire Association trainings to buy a new one and rebuild it a bit differently.
“He took the same layout of the old trailer,” Wiechen said. “When you go through the SCBA training, you have to go through the maze completely and come out with air. To keep the standards the same we used the same layout. But we did make some changes and built it sturdier for wear.”
It simulates most of the hazards firefighters can face in a house, including collapsed spaces, walls with electrical wires going through and cramped spaces they may find as they work their way through a room filled with large furniture.
“It’s a strenuous workout, and halfway through some men are running out of air,” Wiechen said.
While they may all go in with the same amount of air in their tanks, how heavy they breathe and how hard they are working to get through can mean the difference of running out of air or not.
Morris firefighters Cody Post and Keith Jurek both have trained in the trailer at least 10 times in the time it was at the Morris fire station from December to January.
“It benefits us tremendously, it’s a great training tool,” Post said. “The tunnel is the most difficult part for me. It’s not a lot of space to move.”
Jurek said it has taught him that if he can keep calm, he can get out. Keeping calm as they navigate a tight space filled with wires intended to snag their gear is one of the more difficult aspects.
“The wires have a lot of snags,” Jurek said. “If you and your teammate can work together as a team, it makes it easier to get through.”
The firefighters are in constant contact throughout the maze just as they would be in an actual fire, warning each other of what they are about to face as the lead member goes through a difficult area. The leader then can advise the men behind him the best way through.
Fire Chief Tracey Steffes said being able to pull the trailer into the firehouse for around-the-clock training is a great benefit to the fire department.
“It doesn’t take us out of service to go to training. They can go through any time – day or night,” Steffes said. “It’s inside, out of the cold and we don’t have to go off site to train.”
The trailer travels to all of the fire departments associated with Chief Shabbona Fire Association and is stored at the Coal City Fire Protection District. The trailer is typically hauled using a tractor trailer provided by one of the family members of a firefighter.