PORTSMOUTH — With plumes of black smoke billowing out of Elmhurst School, Deputy Fire Chief Michael O’Brien explains the situation to firefighters who have just arrived on the scene.
“We have one civilian missing. Nobody’s seen him since the fire started,” he tells firefighters Kyle Teixeira, Dennis Canario Jr., Brendan Phelan and Evan Katz, who were all gearing up quickly outside the main entrance. “There are rooms off to the right and the left. There is no intelligence as to what room the guy’s in. No one’s seen him since the fire kicked off. I think he tried to put the fire out.”
Then they go in, holding onto a long rope to keep everyone together. They check each classroom in a zigzagging pattern, starting with the room closest to the entrance. The further firefighters make their way into the darkness, however, the more desperate the situation becomes. They can’t see, their tanks are losing oxygen and they haven’t found the would-be hero in any of the classrooms.
But then the deputy chief suddenly hears Mr. Teixeira’s voice over the radio: “We found him!”
He’s in a bathroom, inside the handicapped stall.
“Dammit!” exclaims Chief O’Brien. “I wanted them to run out of air!”
Don’t worry. Your deputy fire chief isn’t a sadistic criminal mastermind bent on wiping out rescue workers. This is only a drill, with Chief O’Brien leading — and occasionally trying to trip up — rookies who are preparing themselves for real-life situations.
Except for a few minor snafus — such as when a water line got snagged on a table leg because firefighters hadn’t pulled enough of it into the building first — they comported themselves well, said Chief O’Brien.
“These guys are pretty sharp. Two of them have prior experience,” he says, referring to Mr. Phelan, who recently came to Portsmouth from the East Greenwich Fire Department, and Mr. Teixeira, who had been a volunteer in Jamestown. Mr. Canario was a former dispatcher for Portsmouth, while Mr. Katz is a Newport firefighter who joined the others in the training session last week.
While the town is still trying to figure out what to do with the Elmhurst property, the Portsmouth Fire Department has been getting plenty of use out of the school since it was closed in a cost-cutting measure in 2009.
“We’re down here a couple times a month. Over the summer we used it a lot,” said Chief O’Brien. “This thing has been charged with smoke so many times that the fire alarm system’s not re-setting anymore. The detectors are overwhelmed.”
But now that the town has approved the demolition of most of the building, firefighters will soon have to find another vacant building for its training drills. “Over the years we’ve used Navy housing before they tore down those vacant units, or the Sea Fare Inn. We’re pretty opportunistic with that kind of thing,” Chief O’Brien said.
Adaptable for training
One of the big advantages the school has over most buildings is that it’s adaptable to most any situation.
“Classrooms are nice because they’re wide-open areas, so you can simulate a lot of different types of searches. The size of the room dictates the technique,” he said.
Three machines blow non-toxic — but inky — smoke throughout the building. Getting rid of the smoke afterwards is part of the training.
“Ventilation is one of the primary functions. When we ventilate a house, usually it’s to release heat so it’s safer for us to go in. But also it releases all the gases, so this is a nice little ventilation drill for this crew as well,” the deputy chief said.
To help them see, in some drills one firefighter uses a handheld thermal imaging camera — it renders infrared radiation as visible light — while guiding the others. The department first started using the imagers in 1997 or 1998.
“At first, they were on helmut mounts and pretty heavy. Any time you had high temperatures, it would white out — it would be overwhelmed and shut off,” said Mr. O’Brien.
But despite the poor technology early on, the imagers were invaluable. Shortly after they arrived in the late ’90s, a thermal imager was used at a fire at St. Barnabas Church.
“They smelled something that was burning on and off for a day or so and they couldn’t find it,” said the deputy chief. “We brought the imager in and within five minutes we located a small fire in the roof of the church that probably would have burned it down later that evening.”
In another exercise, no imager is used as firefighters run through a scenario blind. “Old school, like we used to do,” said Chief O’Brien, who stashed the dummy in the corner of a classroom for this drill.
Asked the most challenging part of the fire training and Mr. Canario doesn’t hesitate. “Not being able to see,” he said.
Indeed, after just five minutes of smoke being charged through the hallway, you can barely make out the hand in front of you.
“The rule of thumb is, when you can see your feet you can stay up,” said the deputy chief. “If you can’t see your feet, you start to crouch into a duck walk. And if you still can’t see your feet you should be on your knees, and that’s because of the holes that develop.”
When they’re “blind,” firefighters use their other senses to help each other find their way. There are bolts in the rope line every 20 feet so they’ll have an idea of how deep they’re inside a building. One or two firefighters will stay at a room’s entrance and tap the ground or door frame with their hands or tools so that the others searching inside will be able to find their way back out.
Fooled by two doors
One can easily become disoriented inside a smoke-filled building, even if you’ve frequented it many times before. At one point, firefighters finish searching one room before crossing the hall to look through another. When they cross back over and pass through another doorway, Chief O’Brien stops them.
“What do you know about this door?” he asks.
Turns out it’s the same room they had checked earlier; the rookies were fooled because it has two doorways on the same wall.
“Say ‘thank you.’ Other chiefs would have let you search it again,” said Chief O’Brien, who was also nice enough not to use a much-heavier dummy that the department also has for training.
As for which water line to use for a fire, familiarizing yourself with the building is critical. When the deputy chief asks Mr. Teixeira how much line he needs for the Elmhurst “fire,” he says 200 feet.
“Are you from Portsmouth? This is Elmhurst School. Do you know how long it is?” responds the deputy chief, who ordered firefighters to get the 250-foot line.
Chief O’Brien said the training drills, if set up properly, can replicate a real-life situation as accurately as possible. Except, that is, for one thing.
“The only thing that’s missing from this is the stress of a real call,” he said. “They’re not in danger of being injured and you don’t have somebody’s life depending on your ability to find them. You don’t have all the sirens and the radio traffic and all the chaos that goes with an actual structure fire — and it is chaos. Hopefully through repetition down here, when that day comes and there is chaos, they can revert back to automatic mode.”
And next time, they can expect a tougher drill scenario from the deputy chief, who was annoyed that a rookie found the bathroom “victim” so quickly.
“I should have put the dummy in the toilet,” he said.