Rare training session comes to western Kansas





HOLCOMB — There is much more to fighting a fire than a water hose. Firefighters must break glass, break through walls or ceilings, crawl around on their hands and knees with up to 85 pounds worth of gear, and in some cases, check to make sure there is a floor to stand on.

The Kansas State Firefighters Association held a fire training school Saturday and Sunday at Holcomb High School. The school included the KU Firefighter Skills trailer and a live burn trailer, where firefighters could fight an actual fire.

"It's very hard to come by to get these trailers because there are a lot of agencies and a lot of fire departments around the state that want them, and they don't usually come this far west, so it's actually a really good opportunity," Capt. Danny Case of the Holcomb Fire Department said.

Mike Cook, training and transportation coordinator with Kansas University Fire and Rescue, gave not only firefighters, but also local media, a firsthand experience with the myriad of things firefighters must do to extinguish fires.

"Fire will look for a way out, until you let it out," Cook said, referring to a firefighter who, using a chainsaw, cut a hole in the roof of the KU Firefighter Skills trailer to provide ventilation.

He said that putting a ventilation hole on the roof allows the heat and smoke to rise, therefore reducing the risk of back draft caused by opening doors or windows.

In addition to providing a ventilation hole, firefighters also trained on plugging sprinkler systems, breaking glass and breaching walls.

Cook said that in cases where a firefighter can't exit the same way he or she entered a structure, they must breach walls or doors to provide an alternate escape route.

"And then you have to feel around for the floor on the other side," he said. "A lot of firefighters have been injured from falling into a basement after a fire has destroyed a floor."

Holcomb Fire Chief Bill Knight said that approximately 200 firefighters and emergency medical technicians from across western Kansas, Texas and Colorado attended the training, which also included scenarios involving grain elevators and a BNSF rail car.

Case said that the training was very informative.

"They told us how to respond to railway emergencies, such as car/train accidents. Or if their tanker cars catch on fire, there are specially-trained hazmat teams that come put it out or help put it out," Case said. "But they have shut-off valves on the tankers — emergency shut-offs — and they were basically telling us not to spray water on the engine itself because basically, it's just a big electric generator."

Knight said that because so many fire departments in this part of the state are small, it's rare for local firefighters to get the opportunity for the kind of training they received over the weekend.

"That's not normal, to be able to bring KU and BNSF, we have to have 'X' number of students. There's no way our department would ever get that, so by making a cooperative effort, we were able to do that," Knight said.

Brent Unruh, a professor with Dodge City Community College's EMT and Fire Science program, brought eight of his students over for the training on Sunday.

"This being so close to Dodge, how can you not come to one of these?" Unruh said. "We're finishing up firefighter I. These are first-year students, so I thought it was important that they actually come and feel what real heat's about."

The fire school offered firefighter I testing, as well.

"Firefighter I is the equivalent of a learner's permit, your first-year driver's license," Knight said. "It's the entry level. We offered the test here for four individuals who had studied at home or taken classes. They took the written test this weekend."

Knight said that EMTs from Finney County and other parts of western Kansas also took a defensive driving course over the weekend.

"We had a lot of EMS people take a defensive driving class. It's kind of a specialty class for emergency vehicles. We call it EVOC for emergency vehicle operations class," he said. "Kansas has some very specific laws on what we can and can't do when running the siren lights, so that's a lot of what they learned."

He said that there were a handful of EMTs also on hand during the firefighting training exercises.

"They're on standby in case someone gets hurt today because it's not safe," Knight said, and then laughed. "You're playing with fire, so it goes against everything you were ever told."

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