The former home of the Amato family, now the site of the future Crozet Library and slated for demotion this month, served as a fire training scene for the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department in two exercises in March. Teams practiced locating a fire victim and ways of entering a house on fire.
CVFD captain Lee James, a professional firefighter with the Charlottesville Fire Department, laid out the game plan. Fire crews were in their full gear and donned their air masks. In order to make the exercise more realistic, they pulled on black knit masks that completely prevented them from seeing.
Firefighter Lewis Barnett taped plastic film over the house’s upper windows and set a smoke machine to work filling the second floor with opaque gray mist. In time, it did its work and it was hard to see in a few inches ahead. In one room was an 80-pound dummy, dead weight, sprawled against a wall.
“The principle is to work as a team,” explained Barnett. “They have to stick together.” The team of Jonathan Hughes, Ty Milner and Katie Marshall conducted a right-hand search of the second floor, crawling on their hands and knees, snagging themselves on nails and encountering other debris close-up, maintaining contact with a wall with their right hand, meanwhile probing and investigating toward the center of the room. The victim dummy was placed in the very last place they would reach according to this search strategy. Hughes came upon the dummy first, by touch, and he and Milner struggled to move it and then carry it down the stairs.
“When you find a victim, you stop and evacuate him,” said Milner.
Meanwhile, on the first floor, a “rapid intervention team” followed a firehose (which has couplings every 50 feet and thus gives some measure of distance traveled) in search of a fictitious “firefighter down.”
“You can get caught in wiring,” explained James, who joined the CVFD in 1994 at the age of 18. His father, V.L. James, is a longtime member too. “The key is that they keep communicating with command [outside the building] so that they can get help.”
A firefighter’s air supply tank, which they call “bottles,” holds 30 minutes worth of oxygen. So a firefighter who has been crawling in a fire for 15 minutes had better start thinking about reversing direction.
“The training is to build self-confidence, to help you believe you can get through [walls],” said James.
The team on the lower floor—Tom Loach, Greg Pugh, Marc Waldemar, and Alex Caudle—were following a hose that led them through a very, very tight squeeze at the base of a staircase. They peeled off their air tanks, shoved them through the narrow gap ahead of themselves and then strained to pull themselves through. During the debriefing afterward, Pugh worried that he had lost contact with another team member. They had come across another hose line that crossed the one they were following and, working blind, it had confused them. It had been set up to do that.
Out by the engine, Ernie Thompson listened to the trainers talk over the radio, kept lights on the building and water pressure on the hoses. He joined the CVFD in 1976 as a 15-year-old. “You get burnt out,” he said, “but you keep doing it because you know your community needs it.”
It was dark by the time the teams switched the drills they were doing. The second team went in search of the dummy, which had been moved, and became disoriented. For a moment, they weren’t sure which of the many upstairs rooms they had been in or which way to proceed.
“That’s why we do this,” observed Barnett.
The final drill was called vent-enter-search. A ladder was placed against a first-story wall and firefighters climbed onto a porch roof to bust their way into a second-floor room and search for a possible victim. “It’s a drill for when you show up at a scene and people are frantic and pointing at a room and saying someone didn’t get out,” James explained. “Speed is essential. You don’t know if the atmosphere in the target room is survivable.”
The firemen, using halligans—versatile crowbar-like tools—were soon inside the room and in a few minutes hoisted the dummy out the window and then carefully lowered it down the ladder.
“We try to do training on some piece of equipment every night a firefighter is on duty,” said James. “Our big focus now is to get everybody trained on the new ladder truck.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to have a house in Crozet to train on. This isn’t a modern construction, something being built today—this has true-dimension lumber and balloon framing—but it’s the next best thing.”
James said he hoped the county might delay demolition so that the CVFD might get a few more training exercises out of the house.
The firefighters had come to the firehouse directly from work, had gobbled down a couple of pieces of pizza and a can of soda, and spent the night lugging gear, then getting sweaty with real exertion, then putting away their gear and heading back the firehouse late at night. In a few hours, they would soon be getting up again to go to work. Through it all they had true esprit de corps. They cared about whether they performed well in the drill. They knew that in a real fire, thwe lessons of the drill mattered.
Count your blessings, Crozet.