BTC mobile lab trains students, firefighters

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Wednesday, June 21, 2017

JANESVILLE—Most people don't want to get too close to a house fire.

Even if the flames can be put out with a flip of a switch, it's remarkably unpleasant to be in a room with flames rolling across the ceiling and black smoke blocking out the light.

On Tuesday, Blackhawk Technical College demonstrated its new mobile live fire training unit. The unit is designed to “simulate a wide range of fire conditions such as multiple floor fires, forcible entry scenarios and ceiling fires.”

For firefighters and firefighter trainees, that's great. For everyone else, two minutes inside is enough to convince somebody never to light a candle, use a space heater, smoke a cigarette, overload the electrical circuits or carelessly handle burning materials.

The mobile live fire training unit is basically a specialized shipping container connected to an extra-large propane tank. Inside, panels can be rearranged to simulate different room configurations. At one end is a metal replica of a couch. Flames come from a variety of places to create low fires, high fires or rolling fires.

Blackhawk offers a fire protection technician associate's degree. The two-year program includes courses such as fire behavior and combustion, fire investigation, and fire protection hydraulics.

“One of the things we have to be able to do is to train them as realistically as possible,” said Gary Trulson, associate dean of public safety. “The trailer allows us to give that simulation of a real fire, but it has a lot of advantages over using a real fire.”

So flames shooting up the walls and rolling across the ceiling—that's not a real fire?

Yes, it's real fire, but the training unit eliminates many of the undesirable features of training with an actual structure fire.

Blackhawk students usually use the Janesville Fire Department's training area and its burn tower. There, real materials such as wood are used in training. That makes it more difficult to control the flames, and it adds training turnaround time, Trulson said.

In the tower, each fire has to be put out and rekindled.

“This trailer is fired by propane,” Trulson said. “It's like a large gas grill. We're able to turn it on and off very quickly, and we're able to monitor the temperatures.”

Sometimes, fire departments will burn down abandoned structures for training. The smoke from burning material is toxic.

The smoke produced by the trailer is artificial, nontoxic smoke.

College officials received an $150,000 grant from the Wisconsin Technical College System to help pay for the $167,000 lab. The money from the technical college system came from a fund for mobile labs.

“When you think about this trailer, think about it as a lab, just like in the nursing program they have labs,” Trulson said. “This is a lab that allows students to do training on fire suppression, ventilation, and doing search and rescue.”

It will also be available for local fire departments to use in their training. It's already been to the Milton Fire Department.

On Tuesday, firefighter students Charles Skokut, 20, and Dylan McKinney, 23, put on their gear to demonstrate the trailer's capabilities. Flames shot out from behind the metal “couch,” up the wall and across the ceiling.

The heat in the container increased rapidly, and smoke began to fill the small space. In less than 30 seconds, the interior was hissing and steaming as water poured from slats in the floor.

Skokut and McKinney volunteer for local departments, and are used to the behavior of fire and the techniques for fighting it.

Both agreed that the trailer is a good way to introduce newcomers to fighting fires.

“This definitely will help,” McKinney said. “It will give people a little bit of smoke and heat, and gives them a taste of what it will be like.”

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