Donation of home allows firefighters to prepare
by BETH ALTENA
Rockford City Council voted in January to accept a quit-claim deed for the unoccupied home at 138 North Main Street owned by Pederson Funeral Home. The home is currently deeded to the city and is being used by the Rockford Fire Department, other fire departments and local law enforcement agencies for valuable training. The temporary change of ownership is for liability reasons and the structure will be deeded back to the owner when demolition is scheduled.
According to Rockford Fire Chief Mike Reus, the use of the property allows the department an opportunity for priceless training that could save a life. “The fire department is running in when everyone else is running out,” he stated. Firefighters, although trained in a vast variety of practices and skills, are traditionally the ones offering, rather than receiving assistance. “When one of us runs into trouble, it’s hard to ask for help,” Reus said.
The first practice in the home took place on Wednesday, January 28 with a “Mayday” scenario to build skills in what to do when things go wrong. The firemen faced a variety of scenarios in the unheated, unlighted home. Working from three stations one at a time, they practiced procedure for collapse of a ceiling, becoming trapped in a room and becoming tangled in debris. In each case firefighters had to gauge how long to try to free themselves before calling for help. According to Reus, this is a vital distinction and one of the harder concepts to realize in a dangerous situation,
Firefighters carry in Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) with 30 minutes of air. If a rescue worker becomes panicked and starts to breath heavily, the air is used much more quickly. “The clock starts ticking at the door before they go in,” Reus notes. If a disaster happens after 15 minutes in a structure, a rescue needs to start quickly in order to get the trapped or injured firefighter out before the last 15 minutes worth of air is gone.
According to Reus, the techniques and procedures his personnel are practicing on Main Street, Rockford, were developed in response to disasters that cost real lives across the country. The scenario that simulated being trapped in wires was based on an accident in a building where a fireman’s SCBA became tangled in telephone wires and computer cables fallen from a fire ravaged and waterlogged ceiling. That firefighter was unable to free himself and called for help too late to be rescued. “He used his last breath trying to get out of trouble,” Reus said.
Department members will also practice what to do in an open space when visibility is bad. Reus said that plan was devised after a fireman died in a mall after a group became disoriented in a Macy’s in New York and couldn’t find their way to the exit. One team member headed out in a different direction from the rest and died.
Another practice will be a lift maneuver called the Denver Exercise that allows even a small person to lift a much larger one to safety. It is technique developed when a Denver, Colorado firefighter was trapped in the upstairs of a burning building. Others on his team were able to reach him through a window, but were unable to lift him out the window to safety.
Although the firefighter in danger was an average size person, even two others were unable to leverage him up and over a narrow window opening to safety. His body was later recovered going through a stairwell of the home. Reus said the technique uses moves and positioning to allow a small person to leverage the weight much larger person. The Rockford Fire Department now has two staging areas to re-create the scene for practice within the Rockford home.
In each of the scenarios, firefighters practice following an acronym developed to speed rescue and offer the best chance of a successful outcome. LUNAR reminds them to report Location, Unit Number, Name, Assignment/Air Level and Resources Needed. It is a flexible tool that can be modified to suit individual department needs but is standard in the fire fighting community.
“These aren’t just Rockford problems,” Reus said of the practices he has scheduled for his team. “They are problems faced by firefighters across the country and developed after tragedies. Hopefully we will never have to use them.” Although Rockford has never had a situation where a firefighter lost their life, having the chance to practice these responses in an actual home is a priceless gift that might someday make a life-or-death difference.
In addition to specific actions to take personally in a injury or rescue, the department also needs to be prepared how to act as a unit if a Mayday disaster strikes. Reus noted that standards of action call for a department to switch to a dedicated channel while working a life-threatening situation. Without a Mayday clear channel, trying to communicate with the trapped individual could be “chaos.”
In all fire departments, members consider themselves a family. “In this training tonight, we have a father and two sons,” Reus said. He noted how hard it could be for actual family members, much less the fire department “family” not to race in if one of their own is down and in danger.
“In fact, that’s the worst thing you could do,” Reus said. “If your son or brother or father is in there, you can’t drop what you are supposed to be doing to try to help.” He pointed out that leaving an assigned duty could end up being the action that causes the rescue to fail.
Firemen and women have a significant amount of training initially and continue training throughout their careers. In Rockford firefighters have had practices in automobile rescue at CarStar. They were able to practice in the former water treatment plant (where the Promenade is now located), the former Northland Pontiac building and on local water towers. Reus said on-going training includes annual water rescue training, structural and non-structural practice, material safety, hazardous material and medical.
It is rare to have the opportunity to train in a home and be able to have realistic practices. “By the time we’re through, there will be a hole in every wall in this building,” Reus noted. He said he is always looking, as are other local departments, for a property that is scheduled for demolition and the chance to use it for practice.
Reus said the city will maintain ownership of the property until it is scheduled for demolition and will practice as much as they can. Other fire departments and law enforcement have also been using the home for training, including Michigan State Police K-9 practice and the Algoma Township Fire Department. The structure will not be burned because of its proximity to other homes.
According to City Manager Michael Young, there has been no request for rezoning the property. It has been reported that Dave Pederson considered using the lot, which is adjacent to the funeral home parking and garage, for green space or for to build a structure to have funeral-related gatherings or luncheons. It is currently zoned residential.
Pederson himself said he wasn’t sure he had any plans for the lot. He said the home is in poor shape, with a leaking roof, bad furnace and little interior value. He is happy to have donated use of the building for practice and noted that he is a former Emergency Medical Service provider. “Once an EMS, always an EMS,” he said.