For Bluffton Township District Firefighter Nick Thompson, a vacant home on May River Road has proved to be an invaluable source of experience.
Thompson, who started as a firefighter in April, has never been to a live fire. But since August, he and the rest of the district have used the olive-green house as a setting for real-world simulation.
Four days a week, sometimes in sweltering heat, firefighters have visited the house to operate search-and-rescue missions, practice entering second-story windows and maneuver in blinding fake smoke.
Since acquiring two new fire stations in April, the district has expanded to nearly 100 firefighters. Twenty-three of them are "probies," probationary firefighters new to the service. For them, the house has served as a classroom.
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"There's nothing like this type of training," said Capt. Randy Hunter on Thursday. "It's the closest we can get to the real thing."
The house, surrounded by trees on the north end of the May River Preserve development, was donated to the district by the Reed Group, a real estate firm that owns the land and plans to develop it. One of 109 future homesites in the 320-acre development, the house will be demolished at the end of October.
In July, Bryan Jacoby, sales manager with May River Preserve, called Hunter and offered the house as a training ground.
Jacoby said the development firm doesn't receive a tax break for the donation.
"I figured as long as the house was dormant, it'd be better used by these guys," Jacoby said.
Such houses don't come often for the district.
Battalion Chief Rick Cramer said he could only think of a half-dozen homes used for training since he started with the district 17 years ago.
To keep the firefighters on their toes, Hunter and the other commanders often change the scenarios.
Sometimes they'll blacken firefighters' masks with fake smoke, Hunter said, forcing them to guide their hand along the wall to find their way.
On other occasions, they've started firefighters on missions with little oxygen left in their tanks, making escape a race against the clock.
"Each fire is different," Hunter said. "This builds confidence in them to make the right decision when the time comes."
After each session, firefighters and their supervisors will walk through the house and critique the performance.
"Afterward, I'll have guys tell me, 'I can't believe the bedroom was that big,'" Hunter said.
Cramer said the more destructive simulations will come near the end of next month, closer to the house's demolition date.
He plans for firefighters to chop through the Sheetrock walls to escape or burst through upstairs windows that are pressurized with fake smoke.
Thompson said his favorite simulations are search and rescue. On Thursday, after helping "save" Firefighter Joe Sirigu from a bedroom dense with fake smoke, the rookie firefighter took off his black helmet and oxygen tank on the porch.
"I know the guys really love this type of training," he said.
"This is important, but there's no replacing the real thing," he said.