Fla. firefighters find ways to train on a budget

By Rachael Jackson
The Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The victim that firefighter trainee Dominic Vescovi recently carried to safety was in pretty bad shape. His insides looked all tangled and he literally had to be taped together.

That's what happens when you're made out of fire hose.

The "victim" was a cost-effective prop used by the Emergency Services Institute and Fire Training Center to simulate rescues and to help trainees like Vescovi appreciate the weight and shape of a human body without using a pricey mannequin. The center near Daytona Beach started using the "hose mannequins," which resemble overgrown gingerbread men, about a year ago when Capt. Chuck Kamine got an idea from a trade magazine.

With ever-shrinking budgets and a faltering economy, governments across the state are looking to cut costs. But folks at places such as the training center in Daytona Beach say frugality has been a way of life for years. Their budgets have historically been constrained and staffs have routinely tapped their creativity to find cheap ways to do expensive things.

Where ordinary people might see a ratty and useless fire hose, people such as Kamine see a future rescue mannequin like the one Vescovi dragged. At the center, old hose is also cut to cover chain-saw blades, or wound tightly in a clover pattern to simulate the weight of tools that firefighters might have to hoist into a building.

"We don't waste anything out here," Kamine said.

Division Chief Howard Bailey estimated that getting materials on the cheap and using inmate labor for many projects saves more than $50,000 a year. The training center's annual budget is $438,482.

A neighborhood concrete company comes to the center to dump excess — otherwise it would have to take it to a landfill and pay for disposal. There it pours cement into square molds, creating slabs that trainees can practice breaking through. On a rubble pile are discarded supports from the Interstate 4 bridge over the St. Johns River, and the center is waiting for refuse from more construction projects — instructors love using pieces of bridges because they come packed with rebar and simulate actual rescue scenarios well. The pile also includes old, metal underground gas tanks. An outline of a fish is carved into one, the artistic mark of a trainee who was practicing with a plasma torch.

Kamine and other staff members routinely scan large construction sites to scope out discarded materials and ask for refuse.

"I'll pull over and say, 'What are you doing with that culvert?' " Kamine said, adding that he typically calls agencies and construction companies to inquire.

At the Central Florida Fire Academy in Orlando, things are done similarly. Old concrete and steel are collected in a debris pile. Car accidents are simulated with wrecked cars.

"They're still worth the same amount of scrap whether we tear them apart or not," said Director Rick Stilp.

The economical attitude is just part of being a fire academy, Stilp said.

"All of the training academies are in the same position where our funding is somewhat limited," he said.

At the Florida State Fire College in Ocala, the staff collects windows from severely damaged houses so that trainees can practice situations where they would have to climb into a building. The center also took an old 48-foot shipping container, put metal pieces in it to resemble "rooms" and now uses it for practice burns.

"We're incredibly good at scrounging things that people don't need," said Chief Dave Casey. "We'll go hit up the Lowe's and Home Depot for doors and windows that are damaged that they can't sell."

Walking around the center near Daytona Beach, Kamine easily points out waste materials that have found new life at the center. An old school bus is used for rescue drills — but also as a storage space for hay. Donated shingles are hammered onto donated plywood so students can practice breaking through a roof.

Even a covered picnic area was built with scrap wood, the labor done for next to nothing by inmates at the county jail or the state prison. Sometimes training exercises themselves are used for "labor." Recently, fire specialists practiced using equipment that mows and tills land in order to clear plant material and prevent fires from spreading. It turned out that the center needed an area plowed so that it could put up a fence. So, that's where they practiced.

Copyright 2008 Sentinel Communications Co.

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