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A golden opportunity

ICCSD donation of a house provides rare training opportunity for the NLFD
A North Liberty firefighter works a hose stream between a vacant house and a tree Saturday, Oct. 27, on Iowa City Community School District property, just east of Liberty High School in North Liberty. The firefighters conducted live fire training before burning the house and two small sheds to the ground. An attempt was made to protect some trees on the property from the flames. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– A small two-story house and two little sheds used to sit on a parcel of land overlooking a wooded ravine just east of Liberty High School in North Liberty. The house was abandoned for some time and the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) purchased the land for future expansion of the high school. Eventually the structures would have to be torn down.
The district’s need to remove the deteriorating buildings led to a unique arrangement with the North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD). The district donated the buildings to the fire department for training purposes. In return, the firefighters conducted a controlled burn to demolish them.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to take a real house and use it for training evolutions,” NLFD Chief Brian Platz said.
Over the past two-and-a-half months, the firefighters conducted several training sessions inside the house utilizing a theatrical smoke machine to simulate the limited visibility of an actual fire while they practiced search and rescue techniques, advancing hoses and ventilating a structure. On Saturday, Oct. 27, the department conducted live fire exercises with crews extinguishing small fires in the upstairs bedrooms.
Once the rooms, prepared with three layers of drywall to create a safe area to build up pallets and straw bales for burning, were no longer safe to use, 14 firefighters gathered in the former living room for a lesson in fire behavior. As they sat and watched, a small fire grew larger and larger, reaching up to the ceiling and occasionally sending fingers of flame over their heads. Meanwhile, distinct thermal layers (hottest at the top of the room, coolest near the floor) could be discerned, as the smoke grew thicker and darker, and also banked down toward the floor.
Once the conditions became untenable, the firefighters exited and additional fires were set to allow the house to become fully engulfed, and ultimately burn to the ground.
In addition to the fire attacks, the firefighters also practiced with ladders, went through some Rapid Intervention training (to rescue downed or trapped firefighters), repacked hose onto the pumper and refilled air bottles off the rescue truck’s cascade system. Chief Platz described these evolutions as very foundation-level fire suppression skills.
Much work had to be done before the firefighters lit the first match. Fortunately, the school district was able to take care of some of the preparatory tasks, Platz said.
“We had to have all of the proper documentation between us and the school district so there are no liability issues, we also had to have the house inspected for asbestos (if any had been discovered, it would have to be abated prior to the fire department using the structure for training). Once the house was given to us, we had to do a lot of prep work to make sure the house was safe for us to be in.”
Firefighters looked for missing railings and boarded up missing windows, for example.
“We have to shore that up so our folks aren’t crawling around and getting hurt or trapped.”
Such opportunities for hands-on training in real world conditions are increasingly rare.
“I’d say this is the first in two-and-a-half to three years, that we’ve had a house burn,” Platz said. “We definitely want to take advantage of these opportunities, so we were really excited to get everybody together today.”
Burning a house for training used to be fairly common with some departments averaging at least one per year. But increased regulations, and the paperwork that goes with them, coupled with the aforementioned requirement to test for asbestos or other environmental hazards only adds to the mountain of pre-fire tasks.
“It’s a lot of work, but at the same time we’ve got a lot of folks that are dedicated and want to provide this type of training to our newest members,” he said. “Well worth it and very beneficial, but it’s difficult.”
On top of the regulatory burden, there’s also a growing lack of houses available for burning, particularly in and around North Liberty.
“You almost have to be in a rural setting,” the chief said. “Or on the outskirts of town. Because if you do this in the middle of the community you’ve got exposure concerns (protecting other houses from the flames), you’ve got a smoke condition… people may have health problems that can’t be near smoke; there’s just a lot of that ‘soft’ stuff that you have to be aware of in order to do it correctly, and be cognizant of the people around you.”
Platz added, “While we’re training to be more efficient and effective in what we do, we can’t do that at the cost of maybe having a neighbor getting sick.”
As the firefighters made the final preparations before starting the training session, Chief Platz said, “We’re excited. One of the last things (Assistant) Chief (Bill) Schmooke said before we left the station was, ‘Let’s use this opportunity today to be positive, lift each other up, if you have questions… you ask, and we’re just gonna be better because of this.’ So, it brings everybody together, which is really good for the team.”