Many years ago, when firefighters needed practice, they had to create their own fires in old buildings and put them out themselves.
That kind of training offered a high amount of realism – and a high level of danger. A structure significantly weakens when it’s set on fire, and a training exercise could very quickly turn into an emergency. Aside from the danger, setting fires like that is highly regulated and difficult to do today.
So, firefighters instead use a training tool called a burn trailer. From the outside, it appears to be the trailer half of a tractor-trailer. Inside, however, it is a metal can full of propane-fueled flames and man-made smoke, in which temperatures can approach 1,000 degrees.
Even with the power to produce such mighty fires, however, it still is controlled and has multiple redundant safety features to ensure things don’t get out of hand.
There are two such trailers in Alabama, one of which recently visited Attalla.
Attalla Fire Department Assistant Chief Chris Correll said the trailer is a great tool because firefighters get to learn through repetition and muscle memory, which further drives home the training.
He said the trailer can simulate things a house fire cannot without becoming ridiculously dangerous.
One example is the rollover or flashover effect, where flames have moved up the wall from the floor and now are on the ceiling.
“When it starts rolling over, you have two choices,” Correll said. “Do your water patterns correct or get out.”
Capt. Todd Hammett, who ran the scenarios for the Attalla Fire Department, said the trailer is a valuable tool because it offers different drills that cannot be run in any other way.
For example, firefighters can train on shutting down sprinklers as they are still running. While this may seem small, no one wants a business flooded while firefighters train, so that kind of training is uncommon.
Other drills in the two-story trailer included a basement fire in which firefighters had to go down into the blaze, and a reversed situation in which they had to fight fires while heading upstairs.
Hammett said the trailer gives everyone a good chance to test gear such as emergency radios.
Attalla Public Safety Commissioner Bob Cross said the safety features included in the trailer are unparalleled, allowing firefighters to get a realistic idea of what it is like to fight fires in confined spaces without many of the real dangers of structure fires. With the mobility of the trailer, which allows it to move from site to site, Cross said firefighters also are able to remain in their districts instead of being sent elsewhere to train.
The trailer is furnished by the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa – the one in Attalla was covered with the school’s stickers – and carries little cost for the fire departments that use it. There are no transportation or rental fees and no cost for the staff who operate it, as they are paid by the Alabama Fire College. The only cost for the Attalla Fire Department to use the trailer was to refill the propane that fuels the flames.
Fire Chief Robert Dillard said he opened the trailer to all local agencies, and many of them took him up on that offer. Gadsden, Rainbow City, Ivalee, Glencoe and Reece City firefighters all trained with Attalla personnel.
Reece City also opened the trailer to everyone when it was there earlier this year. That kind of interagency cooperation is vital to firefighters’ operations.
Hammett said countywide training puts everyone on the same page so that when a situation turns serious, people will know how those at their side should and will react.
“We don’t want any freelancers,” Hammett said. “Freelancers get people killed.”
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