Blackhawk Tech offers local firefighters advanced skill training

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, November 9, 2013

ORFORDVILLE—In a gutted house fit only to burn down, a crew of six firefighters took turns spilling headlong from two second-story windows.

In full fire gear with their oxygen masks in place, the fire crews grabbed hold of the top rungs of ladders perched against the windows. They spun themselves around, and with their chests out and boots and gloves gripping the rails of ladder, slid down to the ground. 

It looked like an acrobatic trick—a flashy, Hollywood action-hero maneuver meant to make a firefighter look ultra-cool while escaping a towering inferno. Yet on Saturday there was no fire, the firefighters wore safety harnesses, and the maneuver had nothing to do with showboating.

Dave Peterson, Fire Service Coordinator for Blackhawk Technical College, watched from the ground as the firefighters practiced their “rail slides.”

“This is the stuff they don't teach in basic firefighter certification skills. These are life-saving skills,” Peterson said.

The firefighters were students for a daylong advanced skills fire training course coordinated through Blackhawk Technical College and led by a crew of four experienced area career firefighters.

It's the first time Blackhawk Tech has offered advanced skills spot training for members of local fire departments, Peterson said. About 20 firefighters were on hand. Many were from smaller, volunteer fire departments such as Orfordville and Edgerton.

The firefighters, all certified in basic skills were practicing inside two donated houses planned for demolition on the southeast corner of Highway 11 and Highway 213.

'We're looking to gain more confidence in their abilities so they can feel better about what they're doing. It's a very dangerous business,” Peterson said.

Peterson, a retired firefighter and former Johnson Creek Fire Chief, said about 100 firefighters throughout the country die each year getting caught in fires. 

“We're trying to show them ways to avoid problems, but also how to get out of problems if it happens,” he said.

In other exercises Saturday, firefighters learned how to hack their way through walls to escape an interior fire that could have them cornered and trapped in a space with no reachable windows.

They learned how to spread firefighters out on a hose while pulling it up stairs and around multiple right angle corners in a smoky house. The trick: to keep the hose from kinking up or and getting caught on door frames the way a vacuum cleaner cord gets hung up. 

These are skills that firefighters normally only learn in the heat of a real house fire. Fortunately for people, there are fewer house fires than there were in the past, Peterson said. Unfortunately for firefighters, fewer fires mean less on-the-job training. 

“That's why this kind of training is so important,” Peterson said.

In one of the exercises, retired Janesville firefighter Dave Sheen trained firefighter interns how to work as an “orientated man,” the firefighter whose job it is to coordinate with other firefighters as they branch off a hallway to search smoky, fiery rooms.

The “orientated man,” keeps track of the locations of all firefighters and all windows and places where firefighters can escape inside a burning house, if, as Sheen put it, the situation “suddenly turns to crap on you.” 

This week, Blackhawk Tech and local fire departments plan to do a full burn on both of the donated buildings to continue the skills training.

Bryan Spigarelli, who has been a firefighter for Edgerton for two years and was at Saturday's training said the workshop could help different local fire crews mesh well when they work together on fires.

“The big thing in this is a lot of our local departments here, we work together on fires. This extra training makes sure in a way that we'll all have standardized practices.”

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