Last week, younger members of local fire departments experienced the real thing as they worked in a smoke and fire-filled environment at the soon-to-be-demolished Abell Howe industrial site in Forest Park. 

Firefighters must be willing and able to run into burning buildings, keep their bearings, locate victims and do so while staying safe themselves. Then they have to put out the fire.

To help area firemen in this endeavor, the Forest Park Fire Department hosted the River Forest and Oak Park departments in a live-fire cross-training exercise April 19-22.

The exercise, said drill coordinator Phil Chiappetta of the Forest Park Fire Department, was designed “to experience live-fire training in a real safe environment. To feel how hot it can get in there.”

“It [was] an exercise in fire dynamics,” said Forest Park Fire Chief Steve Glinke, adding that the exercise was necessary because the fire departments in the area are very young.

“Oak Park and Forest Park are having similar staffing issues,” Glinke said. “In Forest Park 11 of the 18 firefighters have less than four years on the job.”

The training drill took place days before the demolition of an old warehouse building on the Abell Howe site, which Glinke said provided the perfect location for such an exercise.

“The masonry walls, metal deck roof are perfect for live-fire training because [the fire] can’t go anywhere and [the building] contains heat well,” Glinke said.

During the exercise, Glinke and Chiappetta lit wood pallets and hay in a room, then brought the firefighters into the room to acclimatize them to the temperature.

During the drill, temperatures at the ceiling topped the 850 degree range, with temperatures at the mid-300 degrees at the floor. The ambient temperature reaches in excess of 1,000 degrees.

“We’d love to burn things that could simulate single-family residence fires,” Glinke said. However, items such as couches can often lead to uncontrolled burns.

During the drill, firefighters from all three departments took turns backing each other up in a 3-company sequence.

“We have a primary attack line, a backup and a secondary water source,” Glinke said. “At a 1,200-degree sustained burn you’ll get expanded metal and it will torque. If we see it start to roll across the ceiling, we’ll have [the firefighters] operate their lines or terminate the exercise.”

Before the fire is set, however, Chiappetta takes all the participating firemen on a tour of the room.

“There are no surprises,” Glinke said. During the tour, Chiappetta talked to the firefighters about fire behavior and prepared them for their live-fire run.

Once the fire was running, the firefighters lined up, River Forest manning the main hose line, followed by Oak Park, then Forest Park.

The first line, Glinke said consists of three firefighters. The first is in charge of the nozzle, the second is the backup and the third is an officer who directs the activity of the work crew.

The officer carried a thermal imager that shows an almost perfect image of the room, using temperature differences to outline silhouettes.

“Working with the thermal imager camera is good for locating victims,” said Lt. Bill Daugherty, with the River Forest Fire Department.

Once the fires were set, and as smoke poured out of the windows, the firefighters put on their masks and entered the burning room, within minutes bells began to ring.

The firefighters, Daugherty said, have motion sensors on their gear.

“The bells are a warning device. If we were to go down, the motion sensor will sound,” John Newberry, a River Forest firefighter, said.

The bell also serves as a low pressure warning system that tells firefighters they are running out of air.

In the room, the men and women made sure to keep low to the ground.

“The reason you stay low is because all the heat and gas is above you,” Newberry said.

“If you look straight in,” Glinke said, crouching low to the ground while standing outside the smoke-filled building, “you can’t see anything, but if you get down on your knees, you can see other firefighters’ feet. A lot of times all you’ve got is three, four, maybe five inches of absolute clarity at the floor level.”

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