Firefighters gather for weekend of training

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Outfitted in heavy fire suits with masks and oxygen tanks, area firefighters crawled through thick, black smoke to put out a pallet fire in a burning trailer on Saturday.

It was part of the training during this weekend's 25th annual Cape Girardeau County Fire School.

A total of 108 firefighters from 23 Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois fire departments, including some from area industries, attended the school in Jackson. Much of the training was conducted at the Jackson Middle School.

Bill Vandeven, a firefighter with the Patton, Mo., volunteer fire department, rested against an exterior wall of the school after spending a few minutes in the burn trailer.

"Everything just goes totally black," he said of the smoke. But Vandeven had no complaints. "That wasn't bad," he said.

Derek Campbell, an 11-year veteran of the firefighting crew from the Nordenia manufacturing plant in Cape Girardeau County, took the training in stride.

"It's pretty warm," he said of the trailer.

Even with oxygen masks, firefighters crawled through the trailer to stay as cool as possible. Temperatures can reach 1,000 degrees at the ceiling, compared to about 200 degrees near the floor, said Roger English, a fire school instructor and a member of the Whitewater, Mo., volunteer fire department.

"It cooks your lungs when you stand up," he said.

About 16 firefighters in two-man teams, accompanied by instructors from the Sikeston Department of Public Safety, went through the live-fire exercise Saturday afternoon. A similar exercise is scheduled for today.

Burn trailers are essential for firefighter training today, English said. That's because federal and state environmental regulations make it almost impossible to set rundown buildings on fire, he said.

English said firefighters have to gut a house and even check for asbestos if they want to burn it down.

Alvin Frank Jr., chief of the Delta volunteer fire department and president of the Cape Girardeau County Firefighters Association, said it's important for firefighters to continue training so they can safely fight fires.

That training includes tabletop exercises where firefighters use small model buildings and toy fire, ambulance and police trucks to plan how they will attack a fire.

Frank, who has been fighting fires since 1979, said it's getting harder and harder to find volunteer firefighters.

"Everybody is so much busier," he said, because of job and family schedules.

English said volunteer firefighters take the job seriously and train that way.

The terrorist attacks last year haven't changed the way firefighters train, said Gary Wilson, who directs the University of Missouri's Fire Rescue Training Institute in Columbia, Mo.

Wilson, who helped out with some of the classroom training, said 80 percent of Missouri's 30,000 firefighters are volunteers.

"There are a lot of people who want to help other people," he said.

335-6611, extension 123

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