Monday, March 7, 2016

Where There's Smoke, There Isn't Always Fire

Photo by Shawn Leightcap
Pottstown firefighters practice ladder work and cutting holes in a roof to vent a fire. The former Fecera's Furniture Warehouse across Beech Street, which will benefit from having additional parking now that the building they are standing on has been torn down, is visible in the background.

Reporters, like most other people, have bucket lists.

Photo by Shawn Leightcap

This may look like a common house fire, but its training.
But they are probably different than most other bucket lists in that they invariably begin with "I want to report on ..."

I got to cross one off my list Friday evening when, on a whim (and on my way to Manatawny Still Works) I decided to stop by the buildings in the 100 block of North Evans Street that were scheduled to be torn down to make additional parking for the Fecera's renovation project.

(You can read more about that in this Sunday story in The Mercury.)

I knew that Mercury photo stalwart John Strickler was shooting the gala opening of Gatsby's at the Sunnybrook Ballroom that night and probably would not be able to make it to the fire training I had found out the day before was occurring inside the condemned buildings.
Photo by Shawn Leightcap

Practice for rescuing a downed firefighter.

As I approached the scene, between Walnut and Beech streets, it looked like a live fire scene and so I went into spot news mode, shooting photos from outside the perimeter so as not to get underfoot of the firefighters.

But then Andrew Gilliano, the Fire Training Captain for the North End Fire Company, whom I had interviewed by phone earlier. came out past the fence and invited me inside the fence. After all, it's not like anything was actually on fire.

The advantages of training at the Montgomery County Fire Training Facility in Conshohocken, he said, is exposure to real fire, real smoke and toxic fumes .... if you can call those advantages.
Photo by Shawn Leightcap

But the advantages of training in a real home include the fact that the layout is not familiar.

That helps firefighters deal with unexpected floor plans and other unexpected factors.

Also, they get to bust things up.

So, as can be seen in the below video, shared with me by firefighter Shawn Leightcap, they were able to take a chainsaw to the walls, to practice a particular kind of rescue procedure called "exterior wall breach."

Photo by Shawn Leightcap
They also tore down ceilings, broke windows and even cut holes in the roof.

After all, the building was about to be demolished, so why not do it for real and get a feel for it?

Volunteers from Sanatoga, West End, Empire, the Phillies, Goodwill, Ringing Hill and North End fire companies all got valuable practice.

They climbed ladders, ran hose, and conducted other drills over two nights.

They also conducted drills to search for a downed firefighter:

Now, to the bucket list item; once inside the fence line, I was invited into the building itself, to see what it would be like and take photos and video from there.

So former Mercury reporter Frank Otto, who I was meeting for drinks, would have to wait.

I texted him the selfie at left by way of explanation.

He understood, although he mildly expressed concern that I seemed to be on fire.

Once I got inside, and up the stairs, the thing which struck me the most, after I was assured that the smoke was non toxic and safe to breath (it even comes in fruit flavors if you like, apparently) is how hard it is to see inside a house that's on fire.

Photo by Evan Brandt
A North End firefighters makes his way up a ladder, through a small
window and into a smoky room. Who wouldn't want to do this?
Whenever you see a fire in the movies or on television, you can always see (I now realize miraculously) what's going on.

After all, who wants to watch a movie where you can't see anything?

But  when it comes to real life, or in this case, training for real life, sight is an almost useless sense.

What matters is sound and touch.

Can you hear anyone, or anything?

Is the floor solid?

Where are the walls? The doors?

And in these nearly sightless conditions, the firefighters have to do things like crawl along the floor looking for victims, try to find the door to close it and keep the fire at bay for a few more crucial minutes; and, if they find anyone, get them to the now invisible window, and try to get them out and down a ladder.

This video I made Saturday gives you some idea of what I'm talking about:

I'm grateful to Pottstown firefighters for giving me this insight into what they do, and thus allow me to share it with you dear reader.

Photo by Shawn Leightcap
"I would like to report on fire training from the inside ...." is now crossed off my bucket list.

Now, as to a technical matter.

I've shared a few of firefighter Shawn Leightcap's photos here, but he took nearly 100 during two days of training.

I winnowed that down to about 25 after he shared the link with me and put them into what I now officially declare to be a useless Google program called "Picasa."

What makes it useless is that both Picasa and this Blogger program I use to host The Digital Notebook, are both powered by Google.

But they don't talk to each other so I cannot embed the slide show. In fact, literally dozens of comments and video were found in a search by people just as frustrated as I was.
Photo by Shawn Leightcap

But I'm not bitter.


Just a bit amazed at how technology companies make a product people like, that works, then "improve" it, so that it no longer does.

Anyway, if you want to see all Shawn's photos, he posted them on Facebook here.

If you would like to see a few fewer, you can check out the slide show I made here.

Photo by Shawn Leightcap
A different kind of class photo.

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