10th CES firefighters get into the heat

Firefighters with the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department, as well as neighboring fire departments in Colorado Springs participated in a two-day live-fire exercise in Pine Valley housing here. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jason Gutierrez)

Firefighters with the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department, as well as neighboring fire departments in Colorado Springs participated in a two-day live-fire exercise in Pine Valley housing here. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jason Gutierrez)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A crowd of firemen sat patiently on the soft earth surrounding a house in Pine Valley housing here Aug. 14. Smoke billowed from the wide open front doors, and flames could be seen arching up through a hole in the foundation, but no one moved to stop it. Despite the soft drops of rain falling from the gray sky overhead, the firefighters seemed content to let the house burn down without a fight.

A casual observer might think the firefighters had given up or stopped caring. But in reality, the firefighters with the 10th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire & Emergency Services, as well as neighboring fire departments in Colorado Springs, were participating in a two-day exercise designed to save firefighter lives.

Ken Helgerson, 10th CES fire department chief, said the exercise was created to give firefighters a better understanding of when an environment is too dangerous to enter, or when the conditions show that any victims have passed away. Also, the firefighters were trying new techniques to put out fires more efficiently.

"To limit how much risk firefighters have to take, we want to give them evidence from the outside so they can determine what the fire is like from the inside," Helgerson said. "So that we don't have firefighters risking lives for nothing."

For the purpose of the exercise, a Pine Valley house slated for demolition was subject to multiple fire conditions to offer as many learning opportunities as possible.

"This is the first time in the history of the Air Force Academy we've been able to use a house for live fire training," Helgerson said, adding that they focused on "360 walk arounds" - circling the site of the fire to get as much information as possible. "We did a different kind of fire in every bedroom of the house. So in the back, we lit a fire in (one) bedroom, and we took thermal samples from (another) bedroom, to answer if that bedroom door was closed, would that person have survived? Are they worth going to get? So when you do a 360, if that bedroom was on fire, and the window had creosote and was cracked, the people in there would not have survived. But you can know right away if you see water vapor on room two, that, oh yes, we can get those folks."

Indicators like creosote and cracked windows show the internal temperature of the room reached a point of unsurvivability, while water vapor shows the temperature is not yet hot enough to evaporate all moisture - and survival is possible for victims and firefighters.

"What I would say is more common in the U.S. when you have stuff like this is the firefighters put their stuff on, they open the front door and they go in no matter what," Helgerson said. "They do an interior search and they basically expose themselves to falling through the floor - especially if it's floor two -and fall through into the basement. So if they can do a better job of looking at the evidence of the fire, they can make better tactical decisions. We're trying to basically dial in on a risk assessment of what conditions are right by doing an external walkaround. And once we do that, it's a much easier task of picking the right tactical option for what the fire is actually doing."

This risk assessment isn't only for members of the Academy fire department, but for neighboring fire districts as well.

"Everyone on our boundary is represented," he said, explaining that fire departments in the area often call each other for help with difficult or unmanageable fires. "So when we go on an off-base fire we'll know what to do."

Many of the firemen present were first term Airmen at the Academy.

"These kids have seen more fire, just in practice, than most Air Force folks will see in 10 years," Helgerson said. And since this is the first time an exercise like this has taken place at the Academy, it was a first time experience for most of the firemen present.

The firefighters thought the training was beneficial as well.

"I think it was a good learning experience, as far as hands-on work," said Senior Airman Tieghan Fitzpatrick, 10th CES firefighter. "And it was very educational."

"Way better than a book," said Airman 1st Class Blake Nelson, 10th CES firefighter.

Even though only half of the Academy's firefighters were able to participate in the exercise due to time restraints, the training was a success, according to Helgerson.

"I think that this training was successful because we were able to show folks realistic evidence about fire conditions that let them take less risk with fires," Helgerson said, noting that he hopes to be able to conduct the exercise with another home slated to be demolished in the near future.

At a signal from one of the senior firefighters, two of the sitting firefighters leap to action, rushing to the hole in the foundation. Helgerson looks on with satisfaction before explaining that a traditional approach to the fire would be to go through the front or back door, travel through the house to find the door to the basement, and rush down there - losing critical time and allowing even more oxygen to reach the fire, thereby allowing it to grow out of control even more quickly. But, by creating a hole in the foundation, the firefighters changed the game. With a quick application of water from a hose into the hole, the fire is out in seconds.

"Did you see that?" Helgerson asked. "That's what this is about."