Firefighters train for flashovers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 26, 2001

PHOTO: LEARNING THE SIGNS, St. John Parish volunteer fire fighters watch a contained fire to watch for indications of a flashover in a training session Wednesday night. Instructors from LSU Fire and Emergency Training Institute travel around the state training volunteers in fire fighting, and spent the beginning of this week teaching flashover signs to St. John volunteers. (Staff Photo by Amy Szpara) RESERVE – They suited up in bulky smoke-stained gear, helmets, air tanks and thick, black boots, adding an extra 50 pounds to each of them. One by one they climbed into the dark metal box that would hold 12 men and waited for the place to catch on fire. Inside, the boards at the front of the tiny, steel room were torched, and the orange glow spread to illuminate the area. A gray smoke began to fill the top of the small chamber and, as the fire flared, the smoke turned to a black fog, so dense that the men had to stay close to the floor to see their surroundings. When the heat got to an almost unbearable temperature and the gases started to burn themselves, the men took turns at the nozzle spraying the inferno with the hose. A group of volunteers who risk their own lives to save others, the St. John the Baptist Parish volunteer firefighters spend their free time training to save people from deadly fires. And on Wednesday night, two groups of volunteers had a chance to learn the signs of a flashover and how to stop the fire before it gets out of hand and engulfs everything. Using a Swedish Flashover Training System, the black metal portable building that resembled a train car, two instructors from the Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute trained the volunteers outside of the Reserve Volunteer Fire Department on Railroad Avenue. The training system is used all over the state to train fire fighters. “This will give them respect for fire,” said Reserve Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Glenn L. Bourg. After sliding particle boards into the front of the little building and lighting them up, the men moved in and sat down lining the wall. The fire box, where the boards are, can get up to between 1,200 to 1,500 degrees, and helmet height in the room can get to around 300 to 400 degrees. “We want to expose them to a little heat. We want them to see how it builds up and rolls over, for them to watch for the signs,” said Lacy Crow of the LSU Fire and Emergency Training Institute. “The hot gases rise to the ceiling, and it radiates heat until everything catches fire at one time. We want them to see the signs before that happens,” he said. Crow added it would be possible for the fire fighters to be injured during the training session, but chances were minimal. “This is a controlled fire. It’s not like at your house, where it would not be controlled. When you are going into an uncontrolled fire, you better know what you’re doing.” “If it ignites, their gone,” said Bourg. “If they’re in a house and there’s a flashover, they’re not getting out. They need to recognize the signs.” Some of the signs of a flashover are the black, thick smoke, excessive heat to the body and snakes, which are long patches of smoke that burn within themselves. “When they see that they need to cool it down or get out,” said Crow. “It starts putting off gases. That’s what actually burns, the carbon monoxide, a very flammable gas.”Ron Kimberlin, also an instructor from LSU, added, “If it’s too hot for them to advance, it’s too late for the ones inside.” Once the men were inside the chamber, Kimberlin and Crow briefed them on what to do and not do. “Don’t look up any more than you have to. You’re going to look up at it. It’s just too fascinating. Do not touch anybody in here. Your hand print will be on their body when they get out of here. If you press your hand to them, it can burn. And stay down.” The rules were shouted, then the flames came. The suits the men wore for the training session were made of Nomex, which takes much longer to catch on fire. The men put aluminum foil over their helmets to preserve them while in training. The helmets can begin to slightly bubble if exposed to too much heat for too long. Once outside of the chamber, the men took off their gear. Others were waiting to assist them, unbuttoning the clothes with gloved hands. The training institute at LSU offers many training classes throughout the year to volunteer departments all over the state. According to Bourg, the volunteers can join at age 15, as junior firefighters, who train but cannot fight a fire until they are 18 years old. By the time they are old enough to fight fires, they have had three years of good training. “It’s in their blood,” Bourg said of the volunteers and added the dedicated volunteers meet every Monday night for three hours of training. They are on call 24 hours a day. They train for six months before they can start fighting fire.