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Participants in the Country Roads Fire Conference practice extracting another firefighter if they are down through a window. (Photos by Monica Zalaznik)

City fire department’s new mock ranch-style home used to hone search-and-rescue skills is ‘unheard of,’ according to nationwide instructors

BUCKHANNON – The Buckhannon Fire Department invited firefighters from across the state and region to participate in the first training session at its new mock ranch-style house facility.

Three instructors were invited to the new training facility on Mud Lick Road adjacent to the new Street Department headquarters on Friday, Jan. 12, to conduct search-and-rescue training in a mock home. Training in this environment is vital to ensure firefighters are training in the environments they will most likely encounter in the field, Buckhannon Fire Chief JB Kimble said.

Kimble said the department was also given furniture by the community so members could replicate how a real home would be laid out and what obstacles they might find when searching a real home.  

“If we can train in this, we get accustomed to going in and knowing what routes we need to take to get to specific places, so when you go in the front door, it’s an open area with a kitchen, and then the hallways have the bedrooms and bathrooms,” Kimble said. “It really gives you an idea of what you’re going into, so you can visualize it even though you can’t see.”

The mock home is in a building so that training may be conducted in any weather conditions.

“The city made this [property] available; this is a blessing because the instructor base we have in our fire department is second to none,” Kimble said. “We have as many instructors here as most larger fire departments.”

“We have developed the mindset of being progressive, and we’ve learned to do more with less, and this is one way you can train people to rescue more victims quickly with less manpower,” he added.

Thomas Anderson, a lead instructor with Insight Fire Training, was invited to teach part of the class. He said Friday marked the first time he had encountered a facility like the mock home. 

“Rescuing people from fires is the quintessential discipline of the fire service, and as I explained to the class earlier, it’s the one thing that nobody else is coming to do – nobody else is coming to rescue people from fire,” Anderson said. “To have a climate-controlled warehouse similar to what we have here in Buckhannon, where they have essentially built a single-family dwelling with all of the bells and whistles, all the furniture, the appliances, inside of a climate-controlled [dwelling] is unheard of.”

He said the indoor environment enables firefighters to do more realistic simulations in a comfortable environment year-round.

“Last year, when we were here, it snowed four or five inches during this conference, so I can only imagine being at a real building outside during those environments,” Anderson said. “[Having an indoor training residence] creates a much better learning environment for the students and a better teaching environment for us as instructors.”

“We’re able to really keep the students’ attention, and it just helps them to learn so much better when we can control those things that are typically uncontrollable, and this has been an amazing experience,” he added.

The City of Buckhannon and Upshur County Commission are also collaborating to build a new burn facility next to the building that houses the mock home.

“Once we get the burn facility done, we want to be able to do talks in one room, come out here and do dry runs, then go do the real firefighting in the burn facility,” Kimble said. “That way, people have everything fresh in their mind – plus, if it’s bad weather, we’re in here, and everybody’s dry.”

The burn facility will have five to seven burn rooms, simulating different kinds of fires.

“It’ll be set up like a two-story house, and you’ll go in, and it’ll be like an open room, and there will be burned rooms,” Kimble said. “You’ll have to advance through a fire to get to somebody; it’ll be very big and pretty intense. You also have to keep safety in mind because we don’t want somebody to get hurt in training.”

Once the burn facility is complete, participants can also complete their Firefighter 1 training certification, which is needed to operate as a firefighter.

“There has to be a burn facility for that training, so if you come here, and we do a 16-hour course that begins in here and ends up at the burn facility, that counts towards your hours,” Kimble said. “That’s something none of us are getting right now; none of us locally can get any of that training since we don’t have one locally.”

In a previous My Buckhannon article, Captain Joey Baxa said the nearest facility is in Jackson’s Mill.

“I see it as a way to help stop the leak of volunteer firefighters in the area because right now, to take your basic firefighter training, the closest place you could travel is Jackson’s Mill,” Baxa said. “That doesn’t sound too far from where we’re sitting right now, but if you go to Banks District, Selbyville or Ellamore, you’re talking another 15 to 30 minutes, so I think it’s going to make training more accessible.”

After Friday’s training was complete, the Country Roads Fire Conference commenced the next day, which included classes and lectures for firefighters to expand their knowledge on a variety of topics related to fire science and firefighting.

“Near the end of 2022, we all sat down and looked at how much money we were spending sending people out to other conferences because I travel and teach, my brother had the opportunity to travel and teach a little bit, and some of the other guys teach, so they’ve had some exposure,” Baxa said. “We realized we were missing the boat by not bringing these people here locally and allowing everybody to have that opportunity to build these relationships.”

The 2024 conference primarily focused on the psychological aspects of firefighting.

“We have two mental health speakers, and one is Blake Stinnett. Blake is a super nice guy who really provided me with a lot of direction in my career in the short amount of time we’ve known each other, and the other one is Chief Andy Starnes,” Baxa said. “He’s recently retired from the Charlotte Fire Department, and he also helped develop the behavioral health program for the Charlotte Fire Department, so he has a lot of first-hand experience with doing something like that.”

On the second day of the conference, presenter Sean Duffy discussed victim removal and presenter Robert Ramirez talked about firefighter survival.

“He teaches firefighters how to help each other and how they can help themselves, and then Sunday will be Jonah Smith, who also works for the Charlotte Fire Department, but he’s a member of the Firefighter Rescue Survey Group, so he is going to be giving us the lowdown on everything dealing with firefighter rescue surveys, a grassroots effort to learn about victims who are survivors of house fires,” Baxa said.

More information about the Country Roads Fire Conference may be found on its Facebook page, and updates from the Buckhannon Fire Department can be found on its Facebook page.  

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