The firefighters enter the room in a single file line, carrying the hose on their shoulders and arranging themselves on the floor in an alternating fashion – left of the hose, right of the hose, left of the hose.
Then, the doors are sealed, and they crouch and wait in the dark, bobbing up and down every minute or so to let the technology that tracks their movement know that they are still alive.
They are waiting for the room to reach temperatures comparable to those they would experience in the field. As the embers grow into flames, and more becomes visible, an instructor points out changes in the smoke, and the temperature is called out every few minutes – 200 degrees, 300 degrees, 400 degrees.
Each trainee gets a chance to use the hose, dousing the opposite wall and watching the steam rise from the floor.
When the fire is put out, they rendezvous outside to go over what they learned.
Mike Barrett, South Gulf Fire Rescue’s fire chief, said the volunteer fire department tries to participate in these trainings whenever they get the chance, since on the Cape, their real-world experience can be limited. South Gulf brought four firefighters to practice with the team at Chipola College Fire Academy on Friday, Dec. 17.
“On the Cape, we’ve had one structure fire this year,” Barrett said. “And we have mutual aided Port St. Joe on one structure fire that they had… So, it’s been a good year structure-fire-wise.”
“And you know, with the increase in building of structures out here, it just gets more. I mean, it’s just a matter of time, you know, the more structures you build the more the more potential you have.”
Barrett said it was a good day for the training, since the unusually high humidity would allow the trainees to see how fire behaves differently in similar weather conditions.
“Fire and smoke have a whole different way of being when there’s this much moisture in the air,” he said. “It holds the smoke down.”
The trainees practiced putting out fires in five different scenarios on Friday – three in the shipping container burn house, which were designed to simulate structure fires, and two propane fires outdoors.
Nathan Landrum, one of South Gulf’s younger volunteers, said he was thankful for the practice. Though Landrum has been in various fire departments for more than a decade, structure fires in the Florida panhandle are relatively rare, and he does not want to get out of practice.
“I might have been in the department for a long time, but we get an actual fire like once every year and a half, so that doesn’t mean I have much experience,” said Landrum. “That’s why stuff like this is so important.”
The burn training is carefully monitored by the instructors, who carefully demonstrate techniques for their students.
Though the training is designed for beginners, as part of the college’s firefighting curriculum, Robert Lemons, an instructor at Friday’s training, said they often host visiting fire departments who are in need of some hands-on experience.
There are several differences between the manufactured scenarios firefighters go through in the burn house and a real world structure fire. One of the most noticeable is that the temperatures in the burn house were not nearly as high as they are in the average structure fire, which Lemons said often reach over 1,200 degrees.
Still, Lemons said the trainings are a vital part of the firefighters’ education, since it allows them to experience fire-like conditions before an emergency occurs. These types of trainings, he said, have been shown to greatly lower a firefighter’s risk of death or injury.
Training in burn houses is often much safer than training in acquired structures, like abandoned buildings, since they are much more predictable and contain fewer hazardous building materials.
Barrett said he hoped Friday’s practice would help prepare his firefighters for an acquired structure training he has planned for 2022.
“The reason we train is to save lives,” Barrett said, “ours and yours.”
Then, gesturing to Landrum and another young volunteer, he said “these guys are the future of the department, so we do this for them.”