Put the gear on, pick up the tools, drape the hose over your shoulders, climb the stairs, climb back down, take a break, climb them again, go to rehab.
By the third time the firefighters had completed the exercise, beads of sweat began to appear on their foreheads and their heart rates were elevated. It’s hard work, they said, but nothing like it would be at an actual fire.
Members of South Gulf Fire Rescue had all come together at the Port St. Joe High School football field, along with other emergency personnel from the southern end of the county, to complete some exercises they hope will help prepare them for the increasing height of houses and buildings they have to respond to.
“We have two functions,” said South Gulf Fire Rescue’s Fire Chief Mike Barrett. “We have a rehab center, like we would set up at a real incident, and then we have the fire operations part of it.”
“We’re going to simulate carrying different firefighting tools up and down the stairs here so that when we have the real deal, we know how to handle it.”
For firefighters and other first responders, large, multi-story structures present greater hazards when they are called to respond to them – including increased fire load, larger search area for possible victims and limited escape routes.
Full fire gear itself can weigh upwards of 60 pounds, and a standard fire hose weighs about 40 pounds per every 50 feet. Officials present at the drill said that as structures are beginning to get larger out towards Cape San Blas and around the county, it will be important to continue trainings such as this.
“It’s important that our volunteer firefighters train often so that they’re prepared when whatever arises,” said Matt Herring, the director of Gulf County Emergency Management. “This is a good drill for them today because they have so many structures on stilts, and they’re getting a new hotel.”
Barret and his firefighters, who cover the Cape San Blas, Indian Pass, Money Bayou and Simmons Bayou areas, scheduled the training at the football field to prepare for the possibility they will have to respond a four story hotel currently being built in Simmons Bayou.
But the hotel is not the only structure that would require firefighters to climb steps. Even houses are getting too tall for South Gulf Fire Rescue’s current ladder trucks, Barret said.
The majority of houses on the Cape are multistory, with many being built on stilts as a means of flood prevention. Recently, the building height restriction on the Cape was raised from 50 feet to 60 feet.
Currently, South Gulf Fire Rescue has a 50 foot aerial ladder truck – too short to reach the top of some of the newer structures in the area.
“We are working with the county on how to bid for a new truck,” Barrett said. “We’re looking for at least a 75 foot aerial.”
But until the new truck is secured, it will be even more important that firefighters are able to carry their gear up and down multiple staircases, since it might be the only way that they will be able to reach a fire at a tall structure.