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Training by Fire

City fire department builds new training facility.

The plan for the City of Fairfax Fire Department training facility, now an acre's worth of buildings and obstacle courses, began life as a roof.

"It started out as a small request to build a roof simulator," said Rich Miller, fire captain with the city fire department. A roof simulator, which then-fire chief Gary Mesaris proposed building in 1999, would allow firefighters to practice rescue techniques without having to worry about damaging privately-owned roofs.

In 2000, Citgo donated part of its property in the Pickett Industrial Park to the fire department. After Sept. 11, 2001, said Miller, a proliferation of federal funds came available, with one problem: they were specifically designated not to be used for construction projects. Fire departments, however, were allowed to purchase equipment. In 2004, the city's volunteer fire department had just raised $356,000, enough money to purchase a new fire engine. The City Fire Department made a swap, offering to use the federal funds to buy the engine, and use the volunteer-raised money for a new facility.

"For the entire existence of the city fire department, this is the first time we’ve ever had our own site," he said.

By the time the money came through, said Miller, the small request had blossomed into a facility for use by police, public utilities workers, volunteer and professional firefighters from departments across Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, as well as regular citizens.

The volunteer fire department bought the building for $356,000, while about $260,000 for infrastructure costs such as initial water and electricity and a propane-start fire system are covered in the city's 2005-06 budget. The 2006-07 budget includes $300,000 for a training classroom, he said.

In all, the new training facility will cost about $600,000 to build, said Miller, which by industry standards is fairly cheap.

"They have a nickname for me and Andrew," said Miller. "They call us 'Sanford and Son.' We're always collecting freebies."

DOZENS OF local businesses made donations to the facility, including some of its most integral parts, said Miller.

Interstate barrier walls, previously used on the New Jersey turnpike donated by the Virginia Department of Transportation, will be props for rescue crews to practice vehicle extrication, with car props donated by a local auto recycler. Local companies donated alarms and sprinkler systems for the new building as well, he said.

The facility itself is deceptively small. To arrive at a design, Miller and Wilson drove around, observing different training facilities in order to get a sense of what would work for the city fire department's needs.

The building is made from padgenite and corrugated steel. Padgenite absorbs heat, while the rippled steel allows the walls to expand and contract in extreme temperatures without buckling, said Miller. This material is different than the concrete used in most facilities, which is expensive and more high-maintenance, he said.

One side of the main facility is five stories tall, mimicking both an office building and a taller apartment building. The middle section is two floors, with the top floor resembling an attic. The other side is one floor and will contain steel props to make it resemble a kitchen or a bedroom.

"It’s designed to simulate several buildings at one time," said Assistant Fire Chief Andrew Wilson.

Balconies, outdoor and indoor stairwells, and a ladder that goes up to the top roof of the building make the facility realistically resemble apartments and commercial buildings. The main building also has breakable doors for trainees to practice forcible entry, as well as cutout holes in the ceiling, to be filled with drywall, for trainees to practice vertical ventilation. Another hole in the first-floor ceiling mimics a trapdoor-style attic.

BEFORE THE new facility was built, the city fire department practiced in old, unused buildings, using straw, wood, paper and hay to build the fires. Now, the fire department can control the fire with propane-start burners, Wilson said.

The Fort Belvoir training facility also uses steel and padgenite with propane burners. Russell Dodge, assistant fire chief at Fort Belvoir, said the propane burners are far easier and safer to start and stop.

It usually takes at least two hours to start a fire using wood and straw, he said, but with propane burners he can control it using his computer. But the propane burners are not totally realistic, since they do not produce thick smoke, he said.

"You get the flame and the heat and all that, but you don’t get dense smoke like in a real fire," said Dodge.

The City of Fairfax Fire Department will simulate thick smoke with the same machines used to make theatrical smoke, said Miller. The propane burners and theatrical smoke are more environmentally sound, he said, since they leave no smoke residue and no acid runoff from the water used to douse the flames.

"We’re trying to be as friendly as possible," said Miller. The facility’s closest neighbors, who live on Ashby Road just on the other side of a 200-foot tree buffer, will not have to smell any smoke odors, he said.

The facility will help with recruitment as well, said Wilson, as an incentive to prospective full-time firefighters.

"We’ll be able to provide more assistance training for our career people," said Wilson. "It will give us the ability to develop more in-depth, in-house programs so we won’t have to travel as far to be able to do those things."

One of the most important features of the new facility plays to the City of Fairfax Fire Department's strength in Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) training, said Miller. A building resembling a standard house will sit on the property directly across from the training center, so that firefighters can practice an occasionally overlooked part of rescue training: how to save themselves from critical situations.

"We’ve always been training how to rescue the victims," said Miller. "But not as much how to rescue ourselves." Among the drills the RIT training works on are two real-life cases, one in which a firefighter is stuck by a second-story window and another in which firefighters are unable to rescue a comrade one floor below. The program and RIT kit put together by the city fire department has become the standard throughout the county, said Miller.

"We’ve taken the lead for the whole entire region," he said. "And we’re the smallest fire department in the region."

"The whole concept of rapid intervention is rescuing a downed firefighter — and when regional departments work together anyway, a downed firefighter can be anybody from any fire department," said Wilson.

Miller said he expects a grand opening in March 2006, once the building’s infrastructure is finished, the concrete yard is poured, the propane installed and the RIT house built.

"We’ve come quite a long way in the last four or five months," said Wilson.