Picture Rocks Fire District firefighter Scott Lackey hunkers low in the doorway with his fire attack team as Golder Ranch Fire District Battalion Chief Bill Foss twists a doorknob and opens a steel door. Blackish-brown smoke billows out of the entrance as the Picture Rocks firefighters start a ventilation fan to help clear the smoke, then crawl into the room, pulling a charged 1-3/4-inch hose line to extinguish the fire.

The time is 1347 hours and the place is a two-story block building. Another live fire training session has begun at Northwest Fire District’s newly-opened Training Center in Marana.

Besides the Picture Rocks fire attack crew, a backup team made up of Golder Ranch firefighters and a Rapid Intervention Crew of Northwest Fire firefighters are standing by, watching the moves of the fire attack crew. They’ll each take turns putting out a live fire in later evolutions, backed up by the other districts’ fire crews.

Because several fire districts operate on an automatic mutual aid basis, where the closest fire asset is dispatched to an emergency regardless of district boundaries, the need to train with other departments has taken on added importance. And in doing so, the Northwest Fire District Training Facility, covering nearly 13 acres on W. Camino de Fuego and built at a cost of $9.2 million, has emerged as a regional fire training facility.

Brian Gard, Northwest Fire training captain, said the regional nature of fire response makes it all the more important to know the operating procedures and capabilities of neighboring departments.

“The training we’re doing today is part of our trimester fire training that all firefighters go though annually,” Gard said. “We’re doing high risk, low frequency training using a positive pressure attack on a live fire.”

Gard said the fire crews from Northwest Engine 342, Golder Ranch Engine 373 and Picture Rocks Engine 121 participated in the burns, while Golder Ranch’s Advanced Life Support Unit Paramedic 374 stood by to provide medical coverage.

The eight-hour training session began in the morning with classroom work on the strategy and tactics of positive pressure ventilation, led by instructor Dave Villareal, a Northwest Fire captain.

A positive pressure attack uses an exhaust fan to ventilate heat and smoke from a structure during the initial response stages to improve survivability and fire suppression efforts, Villareal said.

After a break for lunch, the three fire crews, instructors and safety officers assemble under a canopy and Northwest Training Captain Alex Sepulveda leads a review of assignments prior to the first live fire exercise. Northwest Fire Captain Rich Martinez is designated to serve as the ignition officer, while Gard is safety officer

On this day, Golder Ranch’s Bill Foss is assigned to overseeing the Picture Rocks crew, which is scheduled to make the first fire attack. Foss may be a Battalion Chief and state fire instructor, but he’s an interior firefighter at heart and in practice. He calls the four Picture Rocks crew members together while the fire in the burn room is building toward its desired 800 degree Fahrenheit temperature.

Foss reviews the benefits of positive pressure attack and then goes over assignments. Each Picture Rocks firefighter recites his planned role in the coming attack. Foss smiles. “You guys have it,” he says. “The important thing is communication — knowing what each of you is going to do and then doing it.”

Minutes later the Picture Rocks firefighters roll up to the building on Engine 121, pull and charge hose lines, put positive pressure into the room, make entry and extinguish the fire.

Afterward, a sweaty, soot-stained Foss congratulates the crew on a good job, then leads them to rehab and debriefing. Following that, Northwest Fire and Golder Ranch crews take their turns in the burn building.

Kelly McCoy, Northwest Fire’s Training Division Chief, said the trimester training being conducted focuses first on development of individual skills, then on fire company skills and finally on multi-company skills, which is encompassed by the live fire training.

“Northwest ran 14,000 calls for service in 2011 and only three percent of them were working fires, which is about 70 a year,” McCoy said. “Fires have become low frequency for us, but are high risk for firefighters and citizens. So it’s important for us to stay sharp in working active fires and suppressing them.”

Besides live fire training, the Northwest Training Center gives firefighters all other OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) mandated training, as well as offering captain certification programs, aerial operation training, driver-operator training, building construction, leadership and fire instructor courses.

In addition to a two-story Class A burn building, the facility has a five-story drill tower equipped with smoke generators; hazardous materials props, including a general service railcar, a corrosive liquid tank trailer, a flammable liquids tank trailer and a one-ton chlorine tank; a car fire prop that uses propane to create realistic fire scenarios; a ventilation prop with two roof designs; and a host of classrooms and workshop breakout areas.

“We are set up as a regional training center for fire departments around Arizona,” McCoy observed. “We have a fee structure that helps us offset the cost of maintenance and upkeep on the center. But the important thing is that we work to develop competence and values through our training, and most of all, to be the best in terms of safety.”

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