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Iowa firefighters use college building for training before demolition

Mason City firefighters trained on working in large spaces inside North Iowa Area Community College’s old cafeteria

By Jacob Shafer
Globe Gazette

MASON CITY, Iowa — A building on the North Iowa Area Community College campus had one last educational mission before its demolition next week.

The old cafeteria building, which was built in the 1970s and housed more than just college dining during its tenure, was host to the Mason City fire and police departments this week for training.

The building was stripped to its bare bones ahead of its demolition, scheduled to begin Monday. It now has a few holes in the walls, broken windows, and cracked locks all in the name of prepping firefighters for rescue operations.

Randy Elsbernd, MCFD chief deputy of training, said having the use of the building before it’s demolished was a huge bonus to the department’s training.

“Being able to come on campus and do this is really awesome, because it gives us a realistic feeling in case something would happen in real life,” Elsbernd said.

Training in a commercial building is an opportunity that doesn’t come often, Elsbernd said.

“I’ve been in this position for years, and we have not had a commercial building,” Elsbernd said. “We probably get the chance to do this in a house on average about once a year — to work in and do different training in, but never had a commercial building before.”

Training in the old cafeteria building gave firefighters the opportunity to learn how to work in a larger space compared to a residential building, whether it was just learning to communicate in a large space, hose management, or knowing how to break through walls that were constructed differently.

“This is a big deal for us, and we thank NIACC for letting us get this,” Elsbernd said. “The building is teaching right up until the wrecking ball hits.”

The training was scenario-based, Elsbernd said. Techniques were implemented to heighten the realism, like putting wax paper in or blacking out the firefighter’s visors to reflect the reduced visibility experienced when fighting a fire, and using oxygen tanks so firefighters can get used to managing their air consumption.

David Trunkhill, facilities director and emergency management coordinator at NIACC, said lining up the opportunity for the two departments to train in the old cafeteria building started through casual conversation with Elsbernd and the police department.

“We all just got to talking about it,” Trunkhill said, “and then it just kind of progressed from there.”

Trunkhill said he’s glad all parties involved worked together to take advantage the opportunity.

“I know how hard it is for fire departments and police to get a structure to train in that they don’t have to worry about damage in it,” Trunkhill said. “Because you can only do so much training in class or virtually, but hands-on training is by far the best.”

Fire Lt. Tom Wollner said there’s no substitute for the ability to move hoses through a building, being able to break and jump through windows, and building tactical and muscle memory in preparation for real-life rescue calls.

“This is as close to the real thing as we can get,” Wollner said. “You don’t get the feel of how labor intensive it is until you actually put the restriction on and put the extra gear on and then do the extra heavy lift.”

From Tuesday to Thursday, fire crews were able to practice hose management, large area searches, breaching walls, victim rescues, forcible entries, vertical ventilation, confined space/supplied air situations, and rope rescues.

Wollner said there are many things firefighters can take away from the training they can’t get anywhere else except on an actual fire call, like how much resistance is on their tools, busting locks off doors, and running into pipes behind sheetrock.

“To come in here and approach a real door, it was enough of a difference compared to our props that they had to actually think about it a little bit,” Wollner said. “The props help and get you to a certain point, but this is the real thing.”

Elsbernd said the training is important for everybody on the crew, from the most recent hire to the most experienced firefighter.

“Obviously, the ones that learn the most are probably the newer firefighters,” Elsbernd said. “But again, there are new technologies and new ways of doing things that our experienced guys can learn too.”

Trunkhill said he’s glad the building was utilized in a positive manner.

“It’s almost fitting that until its final day the building would still be used for something educational,” Trunkhill said.

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