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Live-Fire Training Gives Rookies & Veterans Life-Saving Skills

After more than six weeks of planning, gathering required permits, and carefully designing live-fire training exercises, Fire Chief Steele McCurdy last Sunday, June 5 executed a carefully planned series of fire-training exercises in the former Bates/J. Geils house on Old Ayer Road. The exercise allowed the fire departments of Pepperell, Townsend, Ayer, Dunstable, Littleton and Groton to hone their skills in a realistic but controlled environment.

The Bates house, at the intersection of Old Ayer Road and Peabody streets, also known as the former home of J. Geils, is slated for demolition to make way for a new Performing Arts Center to be built on land recently acquired by Indian Hill Music. Before demolishing it, Indian Hill Music generously offered to make the building available to Groton Fire Department for live-fire training.

Across America, there is a long tradition of fire departments using acquired structures to develop firefighting skills in a carefully controlled environment. In the old days, fire departments used long-abandoned buildings repeatedly for such training. Now, these fire trainings are strictly controlled by state permit and regulation. For many years there was a smokehouse in the approximate location of what is now the CVS plaza on Boston Road.

Such ‘live’ exercises require extensive planning and coordination, but are invaluable for training rookie firefighters and for keeping the skills of veteran firefighters honed. It is this type of training that keeps residents of Groton, their properties and firefighters themselves safe.

As part of preparations for such training, a careful plan for the different types of fires and activities was developed in advance and was carefully followed that rainy Sunday afternoon. Exercises started on the second floor and systematically moved along rooms in the second floor and then moved down to the first floor. The house had been totally checked for structural problems so that firefighters would not fall and hurt themselves because of dangerous conditions within the house.

Designated fires were created by carrying pallets into the training area, loading them with wet straw, and igniting the straw, creating clouds of thick dark smoke, smoke so dense that visibility is virtually zero in the adjacent area.

Once the designated training area is filled with smoke, a team was sent to control the fire. Since the smoke is so thick, firefighters enter these rooms unable to see. In such situations, firefighters enter the building in small teams, consisting of three, four or five firefighters, crawling on hands and knees, pulling a hose. In these situations, the hose is the ‘lifeline’ because it allows the team a ‘map’ to exit the building if the situation becomes dangerous; something like a string used as a guide to exit a cave.

It is the responsibility of the lead man to determine the direction of attack of the fire and to let the other members of his team to know what he perceives as they move forward. For example, he tells the team if he thinks they are in a hallway, and how they are going to approach a room from left to right or right to left, and the plan for controlling the fire.

Other members of the team remain in constant communication with the lead man, letting him know what they are experiencing and warn of any danger to themselves or the team. It is important to remember that these firefighters can see virtually nothing and are mostly dependent on touch, voice, and perhaps a thermal imaging device. Thermal imaging devices are carried by the lead firefighter, but only allow one of the crew members the luxury of sight.

To make the situation even tougher, team members are often on their knees, wearing masks, breathing compressed air. If air starts to run out, there is a five-minute warning to abandon the building. Likewise, if a firefighter goes down and doesn’t move, there is another alarm, letting other members of the team know that one of them is down and needs attention.

One of the exercises, repeated many times last Sunday, required small teams to enter dark rooms filled with smoke, dousing the fire and then using axes and other firefighting tools to break through a window and storm window to the outside, ultimately sending jets of high-pressure water out the window.

Groton Fire Chief McCurdy explained this firefighting technique was a method to clear the room of smoke quickly, a technique dependent on the so-called ‘venturi’ effect.

Besides exercises practicing extinguishing fires in smoke-blind rooms, the firefighters also worked with the ladder truck, learning how to properly vent roofs, practicing skills using chainsaws and cutting holes in the proper roof locations. Clearly, this is a skill best learned without the pressure and danger of a live fire.

A special bond seems to develop among all firefighters, but especially among members of small teams entering the dark, disorienting world of a fire without visual clues. It seems obvious in hindsight, be we don’t call them fire fighters for nothing. These people work in small teams against a dangerous enemy where the commitment and communication among team members is the key to success and survival, like soldiers in a shooting war.

Groton Fire Chief McCurdy deserves great credit for organizing this training exercise benefitting Groton’s firefighters, but also firefighters from surrounding towns. It is also worth mentioning the Police Chief Donald Palma also attended the training, observing the day-long event.

The Groton Fire Department is currently recruiting on-call firefighters and EMTs. Anyone interested should contact the department at 978-448-6333.

PHOTOS: (Top) Veteran Groton firefighter Jimmy Emslie quipped, “Is this my retirement photo?” No signs of that as Captain Emslie takes part in Sunday’s “smoke house” training. (Bottom) The former Bates/J. Geils’ farmhouse on Old Ayer Road performed one last service before it is demolished to make way for Indian Hill Music Center’s new construction. Last Sunday it was the scene of a “live” training exercise for area firefighters under the direction of Groton Fire Chief Steele McCurdy. Teams of three and four firefighters entered the smoke-filled house to practice fire-fighting techniques under real-life circumstances. Photo by Russell Harris
Photos by Russell Harris

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