Thick, white smoke poured from a three-story stack of steel shipping crates behind the Burton Fire District station on Bay Pines Road Wednesday afternoon.
A thunder-like rumble could be heard from within the belly of structure before two firefighters, carrying a 175 lb. mannequin, emerged from inside, swinging open the huge double doors of one crate. They laid their "rescued patient" on the ground before marching back in to complete a search and rescue training exercise.
The stack of 10 shipping crates has been more than two years in the making and, after hundreds of hours of labor, will be complete in about two months, according to Burton Assistant Chief Jim Still. But firefighters aren't waiting for the facility to be finished before training in it.
The crates are about 10-feet tall and have 200 square feet of floor space. Four of them form the base, three form a second tier and two sit on top with a slanted, shingled roof attached to one side. The tenth crate is about 10 feet away and serves as storage unit for tools and extra building supplies.
The structure will serve as a place for law enforcement and firefighters to practice fire, medical, hazardous material and rescue drills.
The fire district purchased the containers early in 2012 for about $30,000, using funds leftover from the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Still said. Another $20,000 from the 2012-2013 budget was used for supplies and training props, he said.
"We always talked about having our own training center," Still said.
But after finding out it would be too expensive to hire a contractor to design and build it, Still said the district decided to use the containers. Still has been a firefighter in Burton for 20 years and often trains in other states as both a participant and instructor. It was on those training trips that he first saw shipping containers used.
Other fire districts in the northern part of Beaufort County have one or two crates, or use gutted mobile homes to practice. Burton's structure will be the largest of its kind in the northern part of the county, Still said. Its three stories allow personnel to practice the balcony and rooftop rescues that they might encounter if an apartment building catches fire, or if a contractor gets stuck in an attic, Still said.
"Dollar for dollar, we're going to have something to better prepare our guys," he said, explaining the crates can likely be used for training for 10 to 20 years. "Any training we do here makes us better prepared for your safety."
Since the crates were delivered in July, fire personnel have spent weekends and spare time on their shifts pouring a concrete base, welding the crates together, cutting doors and building two stairways and a mock attic space.
While they won't actually set fires in the crates, they have a machine that can produce 6,000 cubic feet of an opaque, water-based smoke per minute. The machine is strong enough to fill a Walmart with smoke in about 45 minutes, Still said.
"We've tried to think of everything we could do to train," he said. "Everything we've done so far has spawned other ideas of how we can use this."