In a dark, smoky room with zero visibility, firefighters have to depend heavily on their sense of touch and ability to communicate in the event of a rescue.
Firefighters from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, Oakdale Fire Department and Ceres Fire Protection District practiced this scenario during search-and-rescue training in a vacant home on S. Santa Ana Avenue in Modesto on Tuesday.
“We want to make sure we address rescue and/or search of the structure right in the beginning,” Stanislaus Consolidated Capt. Mike DeBartoli told a group of firefighters. “We really want to push that primary search up to the forefront, and sometimes that means we are going to have to take a risk.”
Windows in the home were blacked out to simulate a nighttime rescue because 70 percent of fires in single-family homes occur between midnight and 6 a.m., DeBartoli said.
A smoke machine was used to fill the home with a nontoxic vapor so firefighters couldn’t see their feet and had to crawl on all fours to navigate the rooms.
During the training, they had to locate and “rescue” a fellow firefighter and a mannequin.
At least one of the firefighters on the typically three-man rescue crew is equipped with a thermal imaging camera to detect bodies and hot spots created by the fire, but Stanislaus Consolidated Capt. Buck Condit said they should not be entirely reliant on it in the dark.
“When you go in with your thermal imaging camera and you are looking at the screen, you can become disoriented really fast. ... Your other senses are not functioning the way they should,” he said.
Firefighters go into a rescue with other tools such as axes to break their way into locked rooms that might be occupied, or break out of a home if they become lost and are running out of air.
The air tanks they use typically last about 30 minutes but run out sooner if a firefighter is breathing heavily from stress or physical exertion.
“Once you reach that halfway point you need to start thinking about leaving because if it took you that long to get to where you are at, it’s going to take you at least that long to get out,” Condit said.
While fire agencies often provide mutual aid to each other, Stanislaus Consolidated Battalion Chief Eric DeHart told crews that there is a push for policymakers to drop boundaries and make it the norm to share resources at every fire. With that, fire officials hope to have a minimum of 15 people dispatched to a fire, with each crew responsible for one task, such as search and rescue, ventilation or fire attack.
“Because of our staffing levels and the way we have always done it in the past, we go in with a hose line, you do your fire attack. While you do your fire attack, you are also doing primary search along with several other things you have to do,” DeHart said to crews. “Resource sharing, boundary drops, all of those items that we are currently working on; what that is starting to do is create some opportunities.”
The joint training by the three agencies Tuesday was a step in that direction, DeHart said.