It was a golden opportunity — a disposable house, flooded in Hurricane Irene to the point that the owner was prepared to tear it down. Instead he offered it to the local volunteer fire departments as a training venue. After a couple days of setting fires in the house and putting them out, the firefighters planned to burn the structure to the ground.
When I reached the property near Phoenicia on the evening of August 7, firetrucks from Shandaken, West Hurley, and Olive were parked along the road. Several dozen firefighters were suiting up, pulling hoses out of the trucks, and chatting on the front lawn, with an air of alertness but without the tension that a real fire would elicit.
“We don’t get this chance often,” said Dave Gutierrez, chief of the West Hurley fire company. “Until we can get a training center up in our county, it’s the only way the guys can train.” Last year a young firefighter died in a fire due to insufficient training, and Gutierrez, a 36-year veteran, is determined to provide experience for local crews.
County Executive Mike Hein has been wrangling with the legislature over whether to build a training facility on county-owned land near Stone Ridge. “Mike Hein has been the first politician to back the training center that was proposed in the late 80s,” said Gutierrez. “He does realize the importance of training volunteer firemen, where a lot of people seem to take it for granted.” A training facility simulates a house, but instead of smoke, steam is generated by natural gas and water, reducing the firefighters’ exposure to toxins. Gutierrez feels a training center would not only make firefighting more effective and safer for local volunteers, it would also help attract and keep recruits, who are in short supply these days.
“Everyone says, ‘Not in my back yard,’” noted Gutierrez, “but they love the firemen in their back yard when they call 911, and a fireman gets out of bed on a Sunday morning.”
The firefighters who gathered outside the house ranged from smooth-skinned teenagers to husky, weathered middle-aged men, as well as several women. Soon clouds of smoke were billowing over the roof. A team of four, each wearing 65 pounds of turnout gear with masks and air packs, set up a ladder and climbed through the smoke onto the roof. They started attacking the shingles with a chainsaw. When it malfunctioned, they passed it to the ground and resorted to an axe.
“You should always cut a hole when going into a fire, to let out heat and gases,” said Gutierrez. “Here they can go in and see how fire travels through the building.”
Another team of youngsters grabbed a hose and headed in through the garage, while older crew members waited inside. “With experienced people there,” Gutierrez explained, “they feel a comfort level so when they have to do it on their own, they have the experience. We talk to them about self-rescue, tell them to watch how the fire reacts.”
Later a firefighter reported, “We couldn’t see a thing in there for the smoke, even with the headlamps. It was hard to find our way out.” Gutierrez teaches trainees to look for another exit as soon as they enter a room and not to assume they’ll go out the way they came in. This time, however, the team emerged from the garage and handed the hose off to the next group.
“The biggest thing I try to do,” said Gutierrez, “is give them an understanding of what situations to look out for so they don’t get into a spot and get hurt. Are there superheated gases that could give a flash fire? Are there holes in the floor? We teach them to communicate with each other, tell the crew on the outside what they’re experiencing, know how to call for help, and make sure everyone is aware of the surroundings.”
Many of the teams he sent into the house included a woman. “I mix the men and women and make sure they work together,” said Gutierrez. “I think women make better first responders than men. Female firefighters are more cautious and level-headed. They analyze things and keep us working in a safer environment. They do a more thorough job.”
Due to damp conditions, the fires smoldered without active flames until several bales of straw were tossed into the house. Firefighters clustered in front of the picture window, looking into the living room, where flames leapt in the corner. I couldn’t see what was happening inside, and I had been observing for two hours, so I went home.
I joined Phoenicia’s M.F. Whitney Hose Company No. 1 in February. I had been impressed in the aftermath of the hurricane in 2011, when the firehouse became the command post for flood response operations. Firefighters were out at all hours, driving trucks through flooded streets, pumping out basements, directing traffic around downed utility wires. Living in Phoenicia since 1998, I have been acutely aware of the divide between families who have been in the area for generations and the urban transplants like myself and my friends. Watching the response to the flood, I realized it was largely those long-term residents who were unstintingly serving the community.
From then on, whenever I passed the firehouse and saw the sign that said “Volunteers needed,” I thought about joining. I wouldn’t have to fight fires, but I could take a support role. I kept putting it off.
When I finally took the plunge, I was welcomed warmly. According to Chief Ernie Longhi Jr., Company One has 13 active firefighters. The other members help keep the firehouse running smoothly, and the membership fee is $5 a year. If I can tame my own schedule, I plan to take a fire police class and make myself available to direct traffic around emergency incidents. Meanwhile, I attend the monthly meetings, which are short and to the point and are followed by dinner. I took the OSHA safety training required of all members. Helping out with the community Easter egg hunt, I felt like a little kid when I got to ride to the Parish Field in a firetruck.
And I’m glad the good-hearted members of Company One are becoming my friends.