Town volunteer firefighters face test in safety
Editor's note: This is the last in a three-part series where the Darien News gets a first-hand look at town civil servants on the job. On Monday night, reporter Maggie Gordon participated in a training exercise with the Darien Fire Department.
Standing outside the Darien drill tower Monday night, it's cold enough to see your breath. Meanwhile, inside a fire is blazing between 500 and 600 degrees. There's no breath to be seen inside the tower, just the orange flames of the fire burning through a pile of wood and hay and the smoke traveling upward in the three-story building as firefighters crawl along the floor, searching for a dummy victim trapped inside.
It's a typical Monday night for the Darien Fire Department.
"There's one team that's going to be a search team, and their primary objective is just to find a downed victim. There's a hose team; their primary job is to get the fire out. Then there's this team with the newer members; they're just learning the basics," Capt. Shane Smith explained to the Darien News as he crouched on the floor near the spitting fire.
This is all part of firefighter training, which the 40 active members of the Darien Volunteer Fire Department participate in twice a month at the drill tower at the dump on Ledge Road.
"We train a lot. We rely on our training," Smith said as a group of firefighters rushed into the building behind him with a long fire hose to practice putting out a fire. "Safety's our main concern. If we're not safe, we get hurt. If we can't do anything, then it defeats the purpose of us being there. We rely on safety a lot. A lot of our guys are medically trained. The town EMS, they come to every fire, so we look out for each other. "� Our training is very key to the success of the department."
For every two firefighters inside the building, there are two outside waiting. This is just one of several safety measures in place. The volunteers are also equipped with oxygen tanks, which allow them to breathe clean air in a smoke-filled building.
Motion detectors on the tanks begin chirping after the tank has been still for 30 seconds. The sound grows louder until it can be heard throughout the tower and outside. The noise alerts other firefighters of a downed member inside, and helps them find him or her.
Throughout the course of the two-hour training session, several chirps can be heard. Firefighters can be seen wiggling their hips to turn off the motion detector before it gets too loud and causes false alarm.
The tanks have about a 20- to 30-minute supply of air inside, depending on how hard the firefighter is working and breathing.
"When we're working hard and we're breathing, usually working time is maybe 20 minutes at the max. Then you've got to go out and get a new pack, and take a break," Smith said.
The oxygen tank is not the only gear they have to negotiate with during the training. There's the flame-retardant boots, gloves, pants and jacket. There's also a flame-resistant hood that is placed over a firefighter's oxygen mask and beneath his or her hat. All together, Smith said it adds up to about 75 pounds of equipment.
On a night like Monday, it helps keep the firefighters warm as they re-hydrate outside between drills; once inside, it keeps them safe -- and sweaty.
The smoke is heaviest and the air hottest near the ceiling, so the firefighters find their way through the building on their hands and knees as they do a right-handed search.
During the search-and-rescue phase of training, packs of firefighters are sent into the tower to locate a dummy victim. Smith looks on from behind an overturned couch on the second floor, as several firefighters crawl past. Some have axes in their hands, others have a Halligan bar -- a double-sided tool that can be used to pry, twist or punch objects -- as they navigate across the room and toward the stairs to the third floor, crawling past charred furniture and a melted computer.
"Every time they enter a building or a room, as soon as they go in the door, they immediately go right, and then follow along the wall so they can cover the whole room by searching it. They just go around the whole room, search the middle, search the wall. They can cover a lot of space," Smith said. "Everybody has a tool. It could be an axe, it could be a Halligan bar "� They could have a water can"� a thermal imaging camera."
A moment later, the sound of thudding metal cuts through the smoke-filled room as the firefighters descend the fire-proof staircase, coming back to the second level. One of them is carrying the dummy under his arm; their search and rescue was successfully completed.
This particular pack of volunteers heads back outside while another group is sent in; this time the goal is to find a downed firefighter. The volunteers who enter the building for this search move quickly, scouring each of the building's three levels with their hands and flashlights.
"This is a family, just like we have our families. This is our family, it's who we go to when we have problems," said Smith's sister, Kristi, who is also an active member at the department.
"We're all volunteers. We have jobs"� but we do this 24 hours a day. We leave our jobs. We're sleeping, we leave our families. On holidays, we get called out," Kristi Smith said.
It's a lot of responsibility, she said.
"You never know what can happen"� We set up different scenarios in the tower, even though it's confined, you never know what surprise is gonna happen," she said. "For a call, if it's a house fire"� it's a rush, but I also get scared because you don't know what you're going to find in there. Hopefully nobody's hurt, or if they are, we help them."
Kristi and Shane's father served as a member of the Darien Fire Department while they were growing up, and their grandfather was also a firefighter. While the family tradition is what originally drew Kristi to the firehouse, it's the idea of helping people that keeps her coming back each week.
After about two hours at the tower, several firefighters turn the hoses on the fire. Training is over for the night, and in a few minutes, the two-dozen volunteers who turned out for the Monday night training will saddle up inside the fire trucks and drive back to headquarters on Post Road.
The volunteers meet every Monday night. On the first Monday of the month, they have a standard meeting; the last Monday of the month is for cleaning the fire department. The second and third Mondays are for live burns at the three-story concrete-and-steel building on Ledge Road.
The drill tower was originally constructed in 1978, and finished in the early 1980s. Since then it's hosted hundreds of fires for Darien, Noroton Heights, Noroton and other neighboring fire department drills. In September, the Town of Darien received a $210,000 grant from the State of Connecticut that will be used to rehabilitate the building.
The grant will help ensure the firefighters have an adequate facility to train in, keeping them ready to respond to any kind of emergency, Shane Smith said.