A mutually-beneficial opportunity between a local developer and the Verona Fire Department offered a training opportunity for firefighters, in a building set to be razed.

Forward Development Group of Verona already had plans to demolish four old apartment buildings on Topp Avenue to make way for new ones, but the company decided to first reach out to the Verona Fire Department to see if the department could use the buildings for fire trainings.

That was a rare opportunity, Fire Chief Dan Machotka said, which is why he invited a dozen other area fire departments to also join, including Fitchburg, Oregon, Belleville, Brooklyn, Mount Horeb, Barneveld, New Glarus, Waunakee, Cross Plains, Black Earth, Madison, and Mazomanie. Instructors and students from Madison Area Technical College were also invited along with Fitch-Rona EMS paramedics.

“MATC joining us was something new,” Machotka said. “We are seeing a lot of value, looking at adapting how we do things.”

The Dane County Arson Response Initiative (DCARI) fire investigation group also took advantage and practiced evidence collection, photograph and document sketching, and camera practice to create 3D imagery of the building.

The departments imitated the immolation of two overstuffed armchair recliners by lighting wood pallets and hay bales on fire, which would reach around the same British thermal units (BTUs) as a typical house fire, Machotka said.

The live burns in the multi-unit apartment buildings took place over six evenings. Each time, materials were thrown out and everything was re-staged. This allowed for a variety of different trainings including horizontal ventilation and other types of venting procedures and search and rescue.

The various crews of the different departments took turns on their own individual trainings – squad companies, engine companies, ladder companies, and search and rescue teams. Each company has its own role, the engine company attacks the fire, the truck company focuses on ventilation, and so on.

The crews were sent in in waves, mimicking a real live fire. In usual mock fire drills, where there are not live fires, often only one crew trains at a time. With live burns, departments can develop a complete training scenario with interactions between the different crews, Machotka said.

An exact replica of a live fire could pose real danger to the firefighters, so a crew outside kept watch on the building, spraying water on the eaves to prevent the fire from spreading to the attic.

The opportunity allowed for a direct view of the evolution of fires, such as how the airflow from an open door can fan the flames.

“One of the scary things for us is looking at airflow,” Machotka said. “If doors are closed, we have a much greater chance of getting there in time to stop the fire.”

The opportunity to get up close to real heat, smoke, and flames is a critical part of instruction and certification for firefighters, teaching them how to safely and effectively fight fires in a controlled setting under supervision, something that can’t be taught just in a classroom, Machotka said.

“The nice thing about this training is getting close to that real live fire, and to get that excitement,” he added. “A live burn is a rare thing to get to do.”

The City of Fitchburg Fire Department participated in the training after being invited by the City of Verona fire department.

“The couple of structures they have provided us with the most realistic conditions possible, with smoke like our firefighters would see,” Fitchburg Fire Chief Joe Pulvermacher said. “It was a valuable training, there was a lot of information to be learned there. We learned what went well and what improvements can be made.”

Pulvermacher even had some of his newest firefighters at the live burn.

While they had safety mechanisms in place in case the fire got too big too fast, it was still a live fire, presenting real danger, Pulvermacher emphasized.

“I think one thing that needs to be said in this situation is this is not a safe environment, not a totally controlled environment, it’s just as controlled as we can get it,” he said. “So, from a training aspect, this is one of the more serious situations. There’s not a lot of joking around with actual fire in a building. Fire is dangerous, smoke is dangerous. The firefighters had to be on top of their game, using the same techniques and tactics they would have to in real live situations. They took this pretty seriously, as if they were responding to an actual fire.”

Reporter Neal Patten can be reached at npatten@wisconsinmediagroup.com

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