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Firefighters at the ‘Scene’

Fire trucks and emergency medical service vehicles crowded the parking lot off Blake Lane on Saturday. Thick wet hoses lay strewn like snakes and puddles formed on the pavement and grass. The firefighters strapped 35-pound breathing apparatus tanks over their heavy protective coats, and as opaque plumes of grayish smoke billowed from the interior of the structure, they moved in.

The “fire scene” was staged, a training exercise, the dense smoke emanating from artificial smoke machines used for such purposes. The equipment, manpower, hoses, and holes in the roof, however, were real.

Sunrise Senior Living opened up its soon-to-be demolished senior living campus in Oakton to provide Fairfax County’s fire and rescue teams the opportunity to engage in hands-on training. From May 10 through May 22, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue services are participating in realistic scenarios normally unavailable to them.

“There are not many opportunities like this,” said Captain Philip Pommerening, a 22-year Fairfax County firefighter in command of Saturday’s exercise. “This is more realistic training than in designated burn buildings. Sunrise will knock down the building themselves when we’re through training here.

“The smoke is ‘artificial’ in that it won’t harm the firefighters if they breathe it in, and it does not pollute the air. But like real smoke, the rescue workers cannot see through it.”

The scheduled training activities include search and rescue operations; breaking down and breaching interior doors, walls and partitions; ground ladder operations; and hose advancement. As many as six to eight stations, 20 companies, will take turns participating in the training exercises. All participants are trained, non-probationary firefighters working in the field.

Travis Nguyen has been a Fairfax County firefighter for two years, assigned to Station 34 in Oakton. Under his fire-resistant coat, Nguyen wore a t-shirt dedicated to slain Fairfax County police officers, Vicky Armel and Mike Garbarino, fellow public safety employees.

“It’s always different working as a firefighter,” said Nguyen. “You could be putting out fires, pulling people out of wrecked cars, or on medical emergencies. And that’s just on one shift.”