Firefighters from 3 departments train together on Hilton Head

astice@islandpacket.comMarch 17, 2012 

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In most places, a building that catches fire over and over again would be considered a hazard.

At the Town of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division training center, such a structure is a boon for island firefighters, as well as emergency responders with the Bluffton Township and Daufuskie Island fire districts.

Firefighters from all three departments are training together for the first time this year, practicing their skills and timing on live fires at a burn tower near the Hilton Head Island Airport.

For several weeks this spring, firefighting instructors have been lighting eight fires in the morning and eight in the afternoon, torching hay on the first-floor burn room of the steel-and-concrete tower.

After even more artificial smoke is pumped in, fire crews get to work.

By then, the visibility in the room -- simulating a typical den or bedroom blaze -- is nearly zero, said Hilton Head Battalion Chief Michael Mayers.

The firefighters crouch to enter the building, which can reach temperatures of more than 500 degrees, to see beneath the haze. A hose is carried in and the fire, identified by a thermal camera, is quickly contained.

Soon, a stream of water shoots out the window to carry the smoke out and ventilate the building. The firefighters emerge and remove their oxygen tanks and jackets. Emergency responders check their vital signs.

Within a half-hour, the next crew is ready to battle the blaze all over again.

Across the state, firefighters are required to take an annual refresher course to stay sharp -- and alive.

Before the Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division offered its training site, Daufuskie Island firefighters had to travel to Columbia, said Fire Chief Eddie Boys.

That meant booking places to stay and taking personnel and trucks out of the immediate area -- not ideal if an emergency situation arose in their absence, he said.

"This saves us a trip and lets us train with our brothers," Boys said. "It's been a treat."

Bluffton Township Fire District crews also lack a training center of their own. Recently, they practiced on buildings set for demolition. But not all firefighters get that opportunity, Capt. Randy Hunter said.

"We could never get one building and have all of our guys go through training," Hunter said. "The building would become unsafe. At the Hilton Head facility, you don't have to worry about shutting down streets or disrupting water flow in a neighborhood."

The joint exercises have one more benefit -- the bond that grows among firefighters from the three units, said Rick Cramer, the Bluffton district's battalion chief of training.

That bond is key if crews find themselves working a fire together. Smoothing out the slight differences in procedures across departments prepares all of them to better respond to emergencies, Cramer said.

The live fire exercises are scheduled to continue throughout March.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content:

House donation gives Bluffton firefighters a real-life classroom, March 8, 2011

Emergency crews turn demolished Hilton Head station into a training bonanza, Nov. 2, 2010

New island facility will fuel fire training, Aug. 8, 2008

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