Updated training program brings the heat to Gainesville firefighters

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Firefighter Clarence Williams uses a saw to cut through rebar that simulated burglar bars. As soon as he got through them, he passed the saw back down the ladder to his partner and climbed into the smoke-filled shipping container. (Jessica Seldner/WUFT News)

Just as District Chief Mike Steele and the firefighters at Gainesville Fire Rescue Station No. 1 are putting the finishing touches on their dinner, six rapid dings of a bell are heard on the alert intercom — a fire call. The crew rides out in fire engines with lights and sirens on, suited up in gear and ready to put their advanced training into action.

GFR firefighters train all year and complete live fire training to keep them sharp and efficient in every situation. As the older generation of firefighters retires, GFR training officials need to do everything they can to refresh returning firefighters and get recruits up to speed.

Steele said the training year started with fundamental skills, like moving hose lines, water placement and fire flow. 

“We’ve hired a lot of brand-new firefighters,” Steele said. “Our department’s gotten young just through firefighters retiring.”

Recruits must complete a seven-week training program before they hit the road. This gives them the chance to prove themselves and show they have the skills needed to answer the call when people’s lives are at risk. Training in staged scenarios and live fire conditions is one of the quickest ways to prepare new firefighters for the real world.

Lt. Herbert Ennis explains the VES victim rescue method before live fire training starts. “We try to give them the most realistic feel that they can get while we keep it as safe as it can get because it is training,” Ennis said. (Jessica Seldner/WUFT News)

“The opportunity to get them in gear, training with their equipment and honing their skill set is just invaluable,” Steele said.

Steele said this generation of firefighters needs training because there are not as many fires these days due to advancements in fire prevention and code enforcement.

“If you look back 20 and 30 years ago, which are the group of firefighters that are retiring now, there were a lot more working structure fires then than there are now,” Steele said. 

Steele has been a firefighter for 20 years and has been with GFR for 15. He said training is just as important for returning crew members as it is for new recruits.

“Training changes every time you do it,” Steele said.

Lt. Jonathan Cicio carries a mannequin made of a fire hose down a ladder after completing a successful VES search. “Mannequins don’t move like people, but they can survive these fires every time,” Ennis said. (Jessica Seldner/WUFT News)

This year’s training was set up to focus on victim search and rescue. There are two main strategies to get people out of a fire. The traditional method is going through the front door and searching room by room. Another method, referred to as “Vent, Enter, Search,” or VES, requires firefighters to go through a window, find a victim and bring them back out through the window and down a ladder. 

Station No. 8 on Northwest 42nd Avenue houses a training set, which includes windows and furniture. Instead of using a fabric mannequin, crews were able to complete a few drills with a live person. Lieutenant Herbert Ennis volunteered to act as the victim and get picked up and carried out of the room. He said this provides firefighters with an important lesson about treating victims.

“They handle mannequins like mannequins, not real people,” he said. “I endure a little bit of pain to make sure the guys get a real feel for what it’s going to be like out there.”

Ennis said this has changed the game for the crew members and made them more conscious of what they were doing.

Sweat drips down firefighter Clarence Williams’ face as he takes a break after live fire training. “My partner said he scanned this building which was a controlled burn, and it was 700 degrees in there,” Williams said. (Jessica Seldner/WUFT News)

These staged drills can only take the firefighters so far. To prepare for fire conditions, crew members go through live fire training. These drills are the culmination of all the training they do throughout the year. GFR sets up training grounds made up of three metal shipping containers, stacked and filled with wood pallets that are set on fire. One week this October, firefighters went through live fire training at this controlled burn site.

In these scenarios, a mannequin made of bundled fire hose is used to represent the victim. Firefighters suit up to execute the entry plans they have been practicing: the front door search and the VES method. 

Lt. Alex Cowart listens to another firefighter describe their experience sawing through rebar. “Every piece of equipment that these guys have on has a tag on it saying firefighting is inherently dangerous,” Ennis said. (Jessica Seldner/WUFT News)

Ennis was an acting captain at the live fire training. He laid out the plans and instructed the firefighters. When the first group was ready to practice the front door search, he held open the door to the shipping container and waved them into the billowing smoke.

“Have fun,” he said as he shut the door behind them, leaving them in the dark and the sweltering heat.

During VES drills, firefighters practiced victim rescue from a second-story window with burglar bars on it. Rebar was fitted over the window to simulate the metal bars. Firefighters had to climb the ladder with a saw in hand and cut through them before climbing headfirst into the room.

Firefighter Clarence Williams, 32, has worked with GFR for three years. After the last of three practice runs in the day’s live fire training, he was exhausted. He sat down with a chilled bottle of Cool Blue Gatorade as he caught his breath. Streams of sweat raced down the sides of his face.

“It’s definitely physically demanding,” Williams said. 

He said the gear they wear weighs 70 to 80 pounds. On top of that, there are also ladders, hoses and tools, as well as fire conditions. The two layers of gear keep the heat out, but they also keep body heat in.

“When you’re sweating and it’s hot, there’s no room for the heat to go, so your body temperature increases, and your heart rate increases,” Williams said.

In a real house fire, Williams said it can get up to 1,100 to 1,300 degrees, and the floor becomes 600 to 700 degrees. 

Firefighter Shane Stocking smiles after sawing into the roof of the shipping container to let out hot air and smoke. He began his firefighting career in his home state of California. “Vertical ventilation is one of my favorite techniques, but they don’t use it much in Florida,” Stocking said. “I always have a lot of fun doing that and going back to my roots.” (Jessica Seldner/WUFT News)

Despite the dangerous conditions, Williams said he feels well-prepared because doing the steps hundreds of times keeps him from wondering what’s next.

“On the scene, you don’t have time to be second-guessing or wondering, ‘How do I do this?’” Williams said. 

He said the live fire training exposes him to real-life conditions, making him more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Ennis described the balance that he and other training instructors follow when they lead drills in live fire conditions.

“We try to be able to train to get them the most realistic feel that they can get, but to also keep it as safe as we can get.”

He said live fire training is an incredibly effective way to get firefighters to their peak performance and keep them there.

“We put them in the worst conditions they’ll encounter,” Ennis said. “If we prepare for the worst, we’ll do really great out in the field.”

About Jessica Seldner

Jessica is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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