Controlled burns hone skills of Jackson Township firefighters

ALAN FROMAN
afroman@thisweeknews.com
Jackson Township firefighters Cole Smoot and Chris Hite spray down power lines nearby as a residence on Holton Road burns Aug. 11, the second of two straight days of fire-training exercises. Firefighters see only a handful of major fires each year, so they take part in such controlled burns whenever empty structures become available as a way to keep their skills sharp.

In a typical year, Jackson Township Fire Department firefighters might respond to five or six major fires.

"We go on multiple small fire runs each year, but the major fire calls really don't happen very often," deputy Chief Shawn Quincel said.

When possible, the department holds controlled-burn exercises that help firefighters stay prepared to respond to those calls.

Seventy-four Jackson Township firefighters participated Aug. 10 and 11 in a training exercise at a home on Holton Road, across from Buckeye Woods Elementary School.

The property owner plans to build a new house on the lot and offered the fire department access to his old residence before it was demolished.

"We don't advertise it, but people know fire departments are always looking for structures to burn for training purposes," Quincel said.

"There are a lot of stipulations we have to follow before we can burn a house," he said.

The structure needs to be checked for asbestos, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency also has to review and sign off on the practice plan before a fire department can proceed, Quincel said.

In the weeks leading up to the actual burn, firefighters use a structure to practice tasks that aren't directly related to extinguishing a blaze, he said.

When a real fire occurs, Jackson Township's crews divide into four groups at the scene, each with a different role, Quincel said.

"About three people make up the attack crew," he said. "They go in and actually work to put the fire out."

A search-and-rescue group is available if needed to enter the building to rescue victims and bring them out safely.

A backup crew serves to protect the attack crew's primary way out of the building and can provide assistance if the volume of the fire overwhelms the initial line, Quincel said.

A rapid-intervention team "is there for the firefighters' protection in case something goes wrong," he said.

The members of that group provide search and rescue for firefighters, Quincel said.

The Holton Road house used for the Aug. 10 and 11 exercises was a 1-story structure of about 1,000 square feet, he said.

"We put down pallets and straw to set the fire. We divide the house into rooms," Quincel said. "We set off the fire, come in and put it out, then get ready to do another controlled fire in the same space. We'll set fires in each room until we can't burn them anymore."

Each fire -- or evolution -- involves each group acting as they would at a real fire, he said.

"The firefighters go through each group in rotation (and) then get rest periods for two evolutions before they return to the practice," Quincel said.

Over the two days, about 60 evolutions were conducted at the Holton Road home, he said.

The controlled-burn training sessions are invaluable because they are real fires, Jackson Township firefighter Daniel Gordon said.

As each firefighter gets several opportunities to serve on the attack line during the two-day practice, they're tested with a variety of fire characteristics, he said.

The nature of a fire might differ depending on where in the building it's set, the time of day, air flow and weather conditions, Gordon said.

Jackson Township has about 100 firefighters/medics, including part-time staff, and most of those who did not participate in the exercise were on duty or were just coming off duty, Quincel said. Firefighters work in 24-hour shifts, followed by two days off.

It would be a lot to ask a firefighter to participate in a full day of controlled-burn training the day after completing a shift, he said.

"The great thing about training fires is that, next to the real thing, it's the most realistic training you can do," Quincel said.

"You're feeling the heat of the fire, and you have to deal with smoke and poor visibility."

The Aug. 10 and 11 training did not include a rescue scenario, but the search-and-rescue teams were able to practice using thermal-imaging cameras. The cameras allow firefighters to see areas of heat through smoke or darkness.

Training sessions are held whenever a house becomes available, Quincel said.

It might be during the heat of summer, the coldest part of winter or during a torrential rain, he said, but that's good because fires occur in all seasons and in all weather conditions.

The firefighters were able to stay hydrated and cool down during their rest breaks with the assistance of Box 15, a central Ohio group that responds to fires and fire-training sessions.

"Our main goal is to rehydrate and keep the firefighters at a normal body temperature," said Box 15 president Joe O'Brien.

The group sets up benches and tents at blazes where firefighters can rest before rejoining the line, he said.

"The tents provide a place to warm up during the winter or to get some shade and get out of the heat during the summer," O'Brien said.

The organization has 20 volunteers who respond to major fires in central Ohio and to fire-training sessions, he said.

Box 15 serves about 80 fire departments in Franklin, Delaware and a portion of Fairfield counties, O'Brien said.

While volunteers monitor fire calls, most of their responses come after a fire department notifies Box 15 that a fire run is underway, he said.

The group has three trucks, and when heat indexes are 90 degrees or above, one of the trucks is kept running and ready to roll, O'Brien said.

"One of our other main concerns now is protecting firefighters from carcinogens they may be exposed to while fighting a fire," he said. "So we spray and wash their equipment and clothing."

As a volunteer organization, Box 15 relies on financial donations to help it meet its mission, O'Brien said.

For more information about Box 15 or to make a donation, go to box15.org.

Through the first seven months of 2020, Box 15 responded to 27 fires and 29 training events, O'Brien said.

The group is in its 73rd year.

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@ThisWeekAfroman

The roof of the home goes up in flames Aug. 11.