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College dorm gives Pa. FFs in-depth, hands-on training

Firefighters took advantage of the soon-to-be demolished Alleghany College dorm to train on fireground operations


West5 Mead No.2 Volunteer Fire Department/Facebook

By Mike Crowley
The Meadville Tribune

MEDVILLE, Pa. — About 20 firefighters gathered outside the building they had just spent the better part of an hour searching, and the news was not all good.

“Not enough people was the biggest thing,” incident commander Janet Courson of West Mead 2 Volunteer Fire Department told the group. “I’m thinking, I need more people, but this is it — this is who I have, so make it work. I was trying to make it work, and it wasn’t working.”

As crews made their way through the three-story building, loaded with gear on a recent 78-degree evening, one person inside was evacuated from the top floor via ladder. But as they continued their attack on the maze-like building containing 79 rooms, circumstances proved challenging.

“Everybody was gassed,” Courson continued. “After they did their initial assignment, they needed to come back and rehab — there was no, ‘Now I need you to go do something else.’”

Capt. Joe Smock of Meadville Central Fire Department had additional news for the group.

“There’s still a victim on the second floor that we didn’t rescue,” he said.

The victim in this case was Rescue Randy, a life-size mannequin used in training simulations like the ones that have been taking place over the past month at the soon-to-be demolished Caflisch Hall on the campus of Allegheny College. In last week’s exercise, Randy was sprawled in the corner of an otherwise empty dorm room at the southeast corner of the building’s northern wing — and there he remained as firefighters gathered outside for their “hot wash” on what had gone right and what had gone wrong.

While leaving Randy behind wasn’t ideal, the fact that things had not gone smoothly was actually good news — that, in fact, was the point, according to Smock and Even Kardosh, Meadville Central’s emergency medical services coordinator, who were leading the exercise.

“We’ve all been there,” Kardosh said as the first of two training “evolutions” on the evening of July 25 wrapped up. “It’s a learning experience.”

In a real fire, Smock added, one of the biggest differences would be the presence of additional crews to supplement the efforts of those at the training exercise.

The simulation was designed in large part to test the skills of less-experienced department members by putting them in positions they have not yet encountered on the job, according to Kardosh. In an actual emergency, he said, more crews would have been present and senior crew members would have taken more prominent roles in leading the attack on the fire.

“It’s something they’ll never forget,” Kardosh said. “They know now, every time they search — they’ll never mess that up again. It’s not even a mess up, it’s just something they had never experienced before.”

Seated and sweaty on the lawn nearby, the three wings of Caflisch Hall rising above them, West Mead 2 firefighters Emily Courson and Braden Bosco had just lived through the learning experience Kardosh was referring to.

“We were going in circles — we searched the same room three times,” said Bosco, who was unsure whether the team had made it to the third floor or stopped at the second. “It was a disaster.”

Caflisch is confusing under the best of circumstances, with separate entrances to the three wings on the ground floor, a warren of common rooms and bedrooms on each floor and with bathrooms offering access from wing to wing on the upper floors.

The confusion is compounded when you’re entering the building for the first time loaded down with emergency gear, pulling a hose and with a sheet of Glad Press’n Seal food wrap stuck to the plastic visor on the mask of your self-contained breathing apparatus. The clingy film, translucent but not quite transparent, simulates the effect of heavy smoke that firefighters are likely to encounter in real emergencies.

“It was definitely hard to see,” Courson said.

Seeing wasn’t the only challenge. Throughout the exercise, the radio communications between crew members were challenged by the sounds of the emergency: ringing bells seemingly everywhere, the occasional buzzing of power saws, the hiss of breathing devices, the jackhammer-like pounding of a clapper valve signaling a dwindling air supply on one SCBA kit and, underneath it all, the constant thrum of diesel engines outside the building.

In a real emergency, the heat of a summer evening would have been intensified by flames that take the temperature inside parts of a burning building as high as 500 to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Kardosh.

With less than three years of experience, Bosco and Courson have been on some calls, but not many. The training simulation was Bosco’s first participation in a victim search, he said.

“It definitely has a different feel to it,” Bosco said.

Firefighter Sydney Welker, who has been with West Mead 2 for about four months, played the role of trapped resident for the exercise. As the first truck arrived on scene, she leaned out a window, calling for help. She then retreated to a room on the opposite side of the building to give those searching for her more of a challenge.

“It was kind of cool to see how people really kick it in gear when there’s a victim involved,” said Welker, who was escorted down an extension ladder from the building’s third floor by a Meadville Central crew. “I learned that it’s kind of like a puzzle — all the departments work together. They’ll fill the roles that they notice aren’t being done.”

Fitting the pieces of that puzzle together takes practice, according to Kardosh, which is why area departments jumped at the chance to use Caflisch when it became available. The building, set to be torn down next week, offers firefighters and opportunity to test all of their skills and equipment, from stretching hoses to deploying the aerial apparatus and stretching ladders — “everything you could imagine as far as a simulation,” Kardosh said.

Over the course of the month, crew members in all of the departments in Meadville Central’s second-alarm complement trained in the building, according to Meadville Central Chief Pat Wiley. As mutual aid responders for any blaze in the city that goes to a second alarm, those departments are the ones Meadville Central works with most frequently.

“It’s nice to be able to get the volunteer departments we are more associated with — to get them in and get a chance to train, and for all of us to work together under a more controlled environment than usual,” Wiley said. “It’s once in a lifetime you get to use a building like that.”

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