When on the scene of the last Columbia Fire Department call, Jack Harle nearly crashed down a set of stairs inside the smoke-filled building.
“I just saw (the stairs) as dark,” Harle said. “Then it got darker. I almost took a step into them thinking it was tile in the next room. I remembered, I better go really slow about this.”
Shoring up the fundamentals of firefighting was what the call to Old Shandon was all about. While a fall down the stairs would have been real, the fire Harle and fellow firefighters fought was only a simulation.
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The Columbia Fire Department and other area departments trained Thursday in a recently donated building at the corner of Millwood Avenue and Woodrow Street. Having new structures to train in brings new ways to bolster firefighting skills, according to Capt. Jason Joannides of the Columbia Fire Department’s training bureau.
“There’s the unknown,” Joannides said. “What did the owner put in? What was here previously? ... When we have community members donate buildings like this, we’re able to replicate things we find in the real world.”
Stairs are some of the most dangerous hazards firefighters face during a real fire, Joannides said. So the different levels of the new training structure gave a valuable learning opportunity to firefighters.
To begin the training, a call went out to the fire stations, prompting engines, rescue and ladder crews to dispatch and suit up just like a real incident. The 8,500-square-foot structure was billowing with a smoke-like substance. Inside, the artificial smoke was blinding for rescue crews that had to search for any victims. Panels of wood marked “FIRE” as well as an imitation fire had to be hosed down by water crews.
Firefighters climbed onto the roof to let out what would have been toxic, hot gases. A dummy was stranded in the chaos and had to be found and dragged out to be given CPR.
“It’s the most realistic way to train other than actually going to real incidents,” Joannides said.
Along with CFD, the Fort Jackson and West Columbia fire departments took part in the training, which will go on for the rest of the week. Other departments will also participate.
The recently donated building is one of more than 200 buildings that CFD have used to train, which constitutes a major growth in their training capacity during the last four years, with more buildings set to become part of CFD’s drills, according to Joannides.
While the department owns some of the buildings, it doesn’t take ownership of them all. As with the building used Thursday, many structures are offered for training for a while before the owner demolishes them.
“We evaluate the building and the needs of the training at the time,” Joannides said about CFD’s Acquired Structure Program. “Then we go forth and conquer.”
Harle felt like the Thursday training was a victory. The drill helped reaffirm his confidence, he said, and if he ever made any mistakes. they’d be his own fault rather than improper training. The simulation also reinforced a crucial phrase for firefighting, especially when it comes to avoiding tumbling down stairs.
“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” the firefighters and Harle said.