Sunday, March 16, 2003

Army Fire Chief George Wilder looks in on a burning bed at a new Schofield Barracks fire simulator. The bed, made out of steel, can be set afire many times.

Army helps baptize
isle firefighters

A Schofield Barracks facility
will simulate house fires for
civilian and military trainees

By Gregg K. Kakesako

The Army will operate a $3 million fire simulator trainer, the only one in the Pacific, to help military and civilian firefighters get a feel of fighting a blaze in close quarters.

Not only will recruits get to feel the intensity of a 1,000-degree fire, but the Schofield Barracks trainer also is able to fill a good-size room with enough "smoke that you can't see three to four inches in front of your face," says Fire Chief George Wilder, the Army's chief firefighter here for nearly two years.

Federal firefighter Keola Mauricio, who used a similar trainer in Texas, said the simulator provides recruits with "the real experience."

"Such an experience prepares them to face a real situation," said Mauricio who has been a federal firefighter for the past two years.

"It helps them conquer the first fears -- the heat, the smoke and the blindness caused by the smoke."

Wilder said such a training environment is crucial because it prepares a firefighter early in his career for what to expect. "It helps to learn early whether you can work under such conditions."

There are only 17 similar training facilities in the entire Army system worldwide, Wilder said, but none in the islands. "There is nothing in the Pacific," said Wilder, "and the closest is in South Korea.

"It is the most advanced tool that firefighters have to meet our challenge of putting out fires and saving lives."

Wilder, a firefighter for the past 41 years, said when he started off as a recruit, buildings that were ready to be demolished were used to train recruits. "Instead of using gas burners," Wilder said, "piles of wood and bales of hay would be placed in a room and set on fire and firefighters would practice putting out the blaze.

"But that could only be done a few times, depending on the conditions and where the fire burned and there was no way to control it."

On Oahu, firefighters were taught the same way, but that procedure has long been abandoned, both here and on the mainland.

Now only propane gas is used, Wilder said, because it is "environmentally friendly."

Sammy Houseberg, director for fire and safety for the Army in Hawaii, said, "Initially, we were supposed to build the trainer on the Big Island since that is where all of the Army's firefighters are located. But it was relocated to Schofield Barracks so we could serve more people."

Construction on the three-story facility began six months ago and the Army is now working on training a cadre of federal, city and Army instructors.

Navy firefighters now provide both the equipment and crews responsible for all of Oahu's Army facilities under an arrangement established many years ago, Wilder said. The only Army crews -- about 30 of them -- work on the Big Island at the Pohakuloa Training Area and the Kilauea Military Reservation.

However, Houseberg said the Army intends to make the trainer available to the Honolulu Fire Department since it doesn't have anything that its firefighters can use to practice combating room fires.

Honolulu Deputy Fire Chief John Clark said the Army facility "will give us a live-burn facility which we don't have now."

"This will allow us to simulate a live-fire condition in a building."

Clark said the Fire Department now uses a simulator at the Chevron refinery at Campbell Industrial Park. However, that is designed to teach firefighters only how to extinguish petroleum blazes. The other training simulator is run by the Air Force.

Wilder said: "We're also talking with the community colleges to allow them to use this facility. They now only offer textbook training. This would give their students hands-on training. By the time these students graduate they will have a good idea on what it takes to fight a fire in a hot, smoky room."

Wilder also said the Army is willing to allow neighbor island county fire departments to train at its new facility.

The three-story facility in Schofield Barracks' Area X training area is fueled by a 600-gallon propane tank. There are four rooms designed to simulate fires in a bedroom, living room, kitchen and a storage area. For example, the bedroom contains a "double bed" -- which is actually a steel box with a propane burner. The kitchen houses another steel box with a grill and burner that resembles a stove. The living room has a "couch" and the storage room a table covered with several boxes.

As a safety feature, Wilder said there are two sprinkler heads located in each room and a safety officer is assigned to a cutoff valve that can automatically flood a room with 25 gallons of water per minute from each sprinkler head.

The walls of each of the 12-foot by 14-foot rooms are lined with thermal insulation -- the same material used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to protect its orbiting shuttles. The Army estimates that the thermal insulation cost alone runs to about $20,000 per room.

The entire firefighting simulation is controlled by computers that measure the amount of water used by the trainees in trying to extinguish the blaze. One trainer noted that a student's technique will determine how long he will stay in the room fighting the fire. The trainer can also control the height and the strength of the blaze.

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